Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part IX: A Point Of No Return?


Officers, as we've already discussed, do not take an oath to follow orders. They hold their commission from the President, they are sworn to defend the Constitution, and they can (and are) sacked if they flout authority. Direct orders are given great weight in their thought. But, absent orders, American soldiers have been known to draw up their own as they see fit. It's a trait that bedeviled Soviet military planners, one of whom wrote: "The difficulty in countering American military doctrine is that their officers do not feel compelled to follow it." It was just as true in 1860 as in 1980.

Major Robert Anderson woke up to one hell of a problem on Christmas Day, 1860. He had command of fewer than 100 soldiers, and held the responsibility to defend Federal property in the harbor of Charleston. Charleston, you will remember, now held itself no longer part of the Union. Four days had passed since the declaration of December 20th, and no orders had come from Washington as to what to do about it. What he needed were reinforcements, and soon. But the Secretary of War, John Floyd, was dead-set against it. Big surprise there, he said sarcastically ... Floyd's sympathies were quite plainly with the secessionists, as his deployment orders the previous summer hinted. What Floyd really wanted, but dared not commit to paper, was for Major Anderson to pack up and head North.

Major Anderson packed up, all right. On the night of the 26th, Major Anderson spiked the guns at Fort Moultrie, gathered up his garrison, and lit out for Fort Sumter. His reasoning was simple, and militarily very sound. Fort Moultrie could not be held against a determined assault, not with only 100 men. And certainly not against a landward assault. Being a harbor fort, it was never built with landward defenses. Fort Sumter, on the other hand, was surrounded by water, and very much defensible. Given provisions and ammunition, 100 men could hold Fort Sumter for months. Maybe even indefinitely, if reinforcements and provisions could be had promptly.

He had no orders from Washington to do this. But neither did he have orders to yield up his garrison unfought. In the absence of orders either way, Major Anderson took the action he deemed best, and sought out the most defensible position he could find.

Secretary Floyd was not amused. The news arrived at Washington as fast as a telegraph wire could carry it, and by nightfall on the 27th Floyd had issued a stern telegram to Major Anderson demanding explanation: Intelligence has reached here this morning that you have abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiked your guns, burned the carriages, and gone to Fort Sumter. It is not believed, because there is no order for any such movement. Explain the meaning.

Major Anderson, outnumbered easily 100-to-1, was even less amused, and his reply showed it: Answer – the telegram is correct. I abandoned Fort Moultrie because I was certain that if attacked my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost. I spiked the guns and destroyed the carriages to keep the guns from being used against us. If attacked, the garrison would never have surrendered without a fight. Unwritten, but obviously implied: You idiot.

Now, this message traffic went directly from Secretary Floyd to Major Anderson, cutting out the man who was at least nominally Major Anderson's commanding officer, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. At age 74, General Scott was hardly amused by anything anymore, but these shenanigans annoyed him no end. It was clear to Scott that the harbor forts, being Federal property, must be defended. He was old, and ill, and tired; but nonetheless he had a duty to perform. On the morning of December 30, a Sunday, he dictated a hasty note to President Buchanan.

Lieutenant General Scott begs the President of the United States to pardon the irregularity of this communication.

It is Sunday; the weather is bad, and General Scott is not well enough to go to church. But matters of the highest national importance seem to forbid a moment’s delay, and if misled by zeal, he hopes the President’s forgiveness.


Will the President permit General Scott, without reference to the War Department and otherwise, as secretly as possible, to send two hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor to re-enforce Fort Sumter, together with some extra muskets of rifles, ammunition, and subsistence stores?

It is hoped that a sloop of war and a cutter may be ordered for the same purpose as early as to-morrow.

General Scott will wait upon the President at any moment he may be called for.

The President’s most obedient servant,


These reinforcements, if done promptly, would have given Major Anderson a force of battalion strength with which to hold Fort Sumter, and provisions to last a prolonged siege. The South Carolina militia will not yet have fortified the harbor against reinforcement. Prompt action could save the fort.

Prompt action ... wasn't Buchanan's strong suit.

Nevertheless, one Union major's spontaneous act made it Federal policy that Federal property would be defended with force of arms if need be. Neither Floyd nor Buchanan could gainsay that at this point. Looking back, it seems clear that this was the point of no return. Each side had staked a position from which they would not back down. There would be no negotiation, there would be no settlement, and now it was perfectly clear where the conflagration would begin. The only remaining question was, when?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VIII: The Dam Breaks


The delegates to the Convention in South Carolina held their first meetings on December 17, as scheduled. The vote for secession was 169-0 in favor. They announced the result, and consequently seceded from the Union, on December 20. Three documents resulted from this Convention. The first was the Ordinance of Secession itself, the legal document that severed the connection between South Carolina and the Union. The second was a missive directed towards the other slaveholding States, imploring them to do likewise. The third, issued on December 24, was titled the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, and was intended to explain to the world at large why they did what they did. I reproduce the document here, in its entirety.

The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act.

In the year 1765, that portion of the British Empire embracing Great Britain, undertook to make laws for the government of that portion composed of the thirteen American Colonies. A struggle for the right of self-government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, "that they are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that, as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do."

They further solemnly declared that whenever any "form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government." Deeming the Government of Great Britain to have become destructive of these ends, they declared that the Colonies "are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

In pursuance of this Declaration of Independence, each of the thirteen States proceeded to exercise its separate sovereignty; adopted for itself a Constitution, and appointed officers for the administration of government in all its departments-- Legislative, Executive and Judicial. For purposes of defense, they united their arms and their counsels; and, in 1778, they entered into a League known as the Articles of Confederation, whereby they agreed to entrust the administration of their external relations to a common agent, known as the Congress of the United States, expressly declaring, in the first Article "that each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not, by this Confederation, expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled."

Under this Confederation the war of the Revolution was carried on, and on the 3rd of September, 1783, the contest ended, and a definite Treaty was signed by Great Britain, in which she acknowledged the independence of the Colonies in the following terms: "ARTICLE 1-- His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz: New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that he treats with them as such; and for himself, his heirs and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof."

Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. And concurrent with the establishment of these principles, was the fact, that each Colony became and was recognized by the mother Country a FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATE.

In 1787, Deputies were appointed by the States to revise the Articles of Confederation, and on 17th September, 1787, these Deputies recommended for the adoption of the States, the Articles of Union, known as the Constitution of the United States.

The parties to whom this Constitution was submitted, were the several sovereign States; they were to agree or disagree, and when nine of them agreed the compact was to take effect among those concurring; and the General Government, as the common agent, was then invested with their authority.

If only nine of the thirteen States had concurred, the other four would have remained as they then were-- separate, sovereign States, independent of any of the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, two of the States did not accede to the Constitution until long after it had gone into operation among the other eleven; and during that interval, they each exercised the functions of an independent nation.

By this Constitution, certain duties were imposed upon the several States, and the exercise of certain of their powers was restrained, which necessarily implied their continued existence as sovereign States. But to remove all doubt, an amendment was added, which declared that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people. On the 23d May , 1788, South Carolina, by a Convention of her People, passed an Ordinance assenting to this Constitution, and afterwards altered her own Constitution, to conform herself to the obligations she had undertaken.

Thus was established, by compact between the States, a Government with definite objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people, and rendered unnecessary any specification of reserved rights.

We hold that the Government thus established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.

Adopted December 24, 1860

Some points to ponder:

(1) There can be absolutely no doubt at this juncture that the primary motivation for South Carolina's secession from the Union had damn-all to do with tariff policy, and everything to do with the continuance of the institution of slavery. The word "tariff" appears nowhere in this statement. The notion of "states' rights" are only significant as they pertain to the right to own other human beings. The one hundred and sixty nine delegates who approved this document meant precisely what they said here, and they spent easily two-thirds of the document detailing their grievances against the Northern states and their anti-slavery campaigns. The excuses of tariff policy and states' rights came later, after the Confederacy had gone down to defeat, after-the-fact justifications for starting the bloodiest war in American history. The real reasons are here in black and white, for everyone to see.

(2) That said, it's important not to absolve the North of all guilt here. If slavery was profitable, if it was sufficiently valuable for the South to risk war, it was because the North made it so. Northern mills ran on free labor, true enough, but the cotton feed-stock with which they worked was picked and ginned by slave labor. It's true that Northerners had become sick of the institution, and wished for its end, but it's also true that it enriched them almost as much as it had the Southern planters.

(3) With South Carolina's action, the dam had burst, but not yet completely. Initially, only six more states of the deep South would follow suit: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Each would adopt Declarations closely similar to that issued by South Carolina. But the border states, where slavery was still legal, held their hand and would not yet commit. The status of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas had yet to be determined. Some held out the hope that the breach was not yet fatal, and may yet be mended.

(4) Now that South Carolina has asserted its independence, the half-ton gorilla patiently sitting in their parlor that the one hundred sixty nine delegates had studiously ignored was the fact that the Federal Government owned clear legal title to significant properties within their claimed jurisdiction. How would they handle the transfer of said properties, and how would they handle the compensation of the Federal Government for the loss of its property? Furthermore, what was Major Anderson, the commanding officer of Union forces in South Carolina, going to do about this new state of affairs? By South Carolina's definition, he was now a foreign occupier; but he had no orders to treat them as the legitimate possessors of Federal property. He would receive no orders to that effect. He'd receive precious few orders of any sort. He was, in a very real sense, on his own.

Whether he realized it or not, Major Anderson had just become the most important man in the country. Much would hinge on how he handled the next few months.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Interlude: The Long Recall

There's a new entry in the "real-time" look back at the Civil War, this one from The American Interest, called The Long Recall. (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.) Along with Disunion from the New York Times, it'll provide another perspective on the unfolding crisis.

It's always good to see more entries in this area, and there's always room for more.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXVIII

There's a heck of a winter storm that's been giving the People's Elbow to the Midwest for the last week or so. Being a life-long Texan, I haven't had much personal experience with this "snow" of which Northerners speak. But water, even frozen water, is deceptively heavy, and its weight rarely gets the respect it truly deserves. Hardly anyone will believe you if you tell them that water weighs a metric ton per cubic meter, but that's the truth. Even so, some fore-sighted soul who works at the Metrodome in Minneapolis had the presence of mind to have the internal cameras turned on and recording when this happened:

As impressive as this footage is, it's not all about the spectacle. This video is pure gold for the engineers whose job it will be to design and build the replacement. Knowing precisely how the failure cascade progressed will tell them exactly where the existing structure came up short. In turn, that will tell them what needs to be made stronger for the new one. Given good information, repeat failures tend to be rare in engineering. Once repaired, and especially once upgraded, I'd be amazed if the roof failed in this same way again.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXVII

Say what you want to about Elon Musk, he can sure build a rocket:

This second flight of the Falcon 9 rocket carried the first fully-functional prototype of the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. It's also the first time that a private company has actually brought anything back from orbit. After circling the Earth twice, the Dragon spacecraft executed a de-orbit burn, and splashed down in the Pacific, about 500 miles off the coast of Mexico. The next demonstration flight is scheduled for April, which may involve an unmanned rendezvous with the Space Station. Cargo deliveries will follow within a year.

Falcon 9 is now two-for-two. And at the end of today's play, the score stands at Dragon 1, Orion 0. Which means that this isn't very far off:

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VII: Where Were They?


One hundred fifty years ago, delegates in South Carolina were on their way to Columbia, where the legislature had voted to assemble a Convention for the purpose of considering secession from the Union in response to the election of a Republican to the Presidency. The result of this convention was almost a foregone conclusion. The only questions remaining were when, how, and codifying the reasons why. Elsewhere in the country, other men went about their daily duties, some rather ordinary, some already extraordinary. Although some of them were rather obscure at the time, we would come to know them very well indeed in the months and years to come.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it. -- Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln spent the winter of 1860 at his home in Springfield, preparing for his Presidency to being on March 4 of the following year. Much of his time was consumed dealing with office-seekers, a task that would take up much of his time until he actually assumed the Presidency. The President-Elect not only had to assemble a team with which to govern, he also faced the prospect of governing vast territories that had no wish to be governed, at least not by him. This would be the last winter he would ever spend at his home.

One of the fruitful sources, as I hold it, of the errors which prevail in our country, is the theory that this is a government of one people; that the government of the United States was formed by a mass; and therefore it is taken that all are responsible for the institutions and policies of each. The government of the United States is a compact between the sovereign members who formed it; and if there be one feature common to all the colonies planted upon the shores of America, it was the steady assertion of, and uncompromising desire for, community independence. -- Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis was a United States Senator from Mississippi. He argued forcefully for the rights of the several States against those of the Federal government. Ironically, that winter, he also argued against Mississippi's secession from the Union. But like so many others of his class and time, where Mississippi went, he would follow.

He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it. -- Col. Theodore Lyman, describing Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was a West Point man, and had a creditable record of service in the Mexican War, but had fallen on hard times. After a string of failed business ventures, he was working as an assistant in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. Somewhat ironically, considering his later life, he was a supporter of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election.

I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. -- Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was second in his class at West Point, and was enjoying a promising career as one of the U.S. Army's rising stars. He had served with distinction in the Corps of Engineers, and had been Superintendent of West Point. In the winter of 1860 Lee was in Texas, but was planning to report to Washington for reassignment.

You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail. -- William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman was also a West Point man, but was assigned to administrative duties in California during the Mexican War. His lack of combat experience, and the lack of future opportunity that implied, led to his decision to resign his commission in 1853. He went through a series of jobs without much success, but found a position that fit his character when he was appointed superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary in 1859. Many of his colleagues at this southern institution were quite openly pro-secession ... and most learned not to mention this around Sherman. Very little of what was to come came as a surprise to him.

The course of events is so rapidly hastening forward that the emergency may soon arise when you may be called upon to decide the momentous question whether you possess the power by force of arms to compel a State to remain in the Union. I should feel myself recreant to my duty were I not to express an opinion on this important subject. -- James Buchanan

It is grimly amusing that Buchanan would use the words "recreant to my duty" in a non-ironic sense. Nominally speaking, in the winter of 1860, James Buchanan was the President of the United States. Practically speaking, he was an empty suit. He believed that secession was illegal -- but he also believed he had no legal powers to do anything about it. This, quite frankly, baffles me. If something is illegal, does that not imply that there is a law? And does the Chief Executive not have, by definition, the authority -- no, the duty -- to enforce law? But no, James Buchanan would fiddle while America burned. Mark this well: Buchanan wasn't a bad President because he made bad decisions. Buchanan was a bad President because, at the most critical juncture of the nation's history, he made no decisions.

His waffling would cost his countrymen dearly.

The conventioneers were set to meet in Columbia, South Carolina, on December 17th, 1860.

Friday, December 03, 2010

All Alone In The Night

I pity doctoral candidates in liberal arts fields. Completing a Ph.D. in anything requires a dissertation, and that dissertation must be an original contribution to the state of the art. For a budding literature scholar, that's a fairly daunting prospect. There's a limit to how thin you can slice Shakespeare without getting patently silly. I admire the ingenuity it takes to do that well. On the other hand, for a scientist or engineer, it's easy. Just pick a question no one's figured out yet. No shortage of those. Even if you don't answer it, you can eliminate a few blind alleys.

So ... having been a doctoral candidate, I tend to wonder about unanswered questions. Metaphysically speaking, the biggest question still on Science's plate is, "Are we alone?" People have wondered about this for ages, but Frank Drake was the first to take up the search in earnest, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1960. In 1961, the National Academy of Sciences asked Drake to convene a meeting on the subject. In his preparations for that meeting, Drake came up with a formula to estimate the number of civilizations we might expect to talk to:

N = R* x Fp x Ne x Fl x Fi x Fc x L


N = number of civilization in the Galaxy with which communications might be possible
R* = Rate of star formation
Fp = Fraction of stars that have planets
Ne = Average number of planets that can support life per star with planets
Fl = Fraction of Ne that go on to develop life
Fi = Fraction of the above that develop intelligence
Fc = Fraction that go on to develop radio, and announce their existence
L = Lifetime of that civilization

Drake originally estimated N to be equal to 10. But most of the numbers Drake used were wild, if educated, guesses. A lot of those numbers are still wild guesses. But, we know a lot more about extrasolar planets now than we did then ... Missions like Kepler and COROT have begun to hit paydirt.

In particular, there's evidence to suggest that the nearby star Gliese 581 has a planet, Gliese 581g, that could have liquid water on its surface. It's at the right distance from its parent star, it's about the right size. Someone might just be living there. But the real point is, we now have a lower bound of sorts for the frequency of vaguely Earthlike planets: 1 in 500. Knowing that, we can have a go at recranking the numbers.

R*: The current best estimates are that seven stars are formed in our Galaxy every year.

Fp: Scientific opinion has gone back and forth on this like you wouldn't believe. At one point, I was about to make my dissertation topic a numerical study on the stability of hypothetical planetary orbits in binary star systems. At the time, many people thought that binary star systems couldn't have planets at all. Now, we've discovered several extrasolar planets in such systems. Drake originally estimated this fraction to be about one-half. Evidence suggests it's somewhere between 40% and 60%, with one-third being a fairly confident lower bound. So, going with 0.5 seems a safe enough bet.

Ne: Here's where our newest information comes in: out of eight known planets in our own solar system, and 505 known elsewhere, there is one known Earthlike world (Earth, obviously) and one suspected (Gliese 581g). So, according to our best information available, we can guess this number to be about 0.04.

Fl: Once it was thought that life was abundant in the cosmos. Then it was thought that life was rare. Now we're swinging back the other way. Everywhere we have found liquid water, nutrients, and an energy source, we've found life. Extremes of temperature don't matter. Acidity doesn't matter, neither does alkalinity. Presence or absence of salt, ditto. We've even discovered a microbe that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus. I'm fairly convinced this is as near to 1 as makes no difference.

Fi: This, on the other hand, is a trickier question. Single-cell life is probably ubiquitous. It arose on Earth almost the moment conditions allowed it. Multi-cell organisms, on the other hand ... The Rare Earth hypothesis isn't anything like proven, but I do find its reasoning fairly sound. The leap from single-cell to multi-cell life is the one big step that you probably ought not take for granted. It might require finicky conditions that are rare, or it might be easy. We just don't know. But, once you cross that barrier, evolution does tend to favor complex organisms. That complexity tends to give a creature a richer toolbox for dealing with its world. And intelligence, once it arises, is evolution's killer app. Simple life adjusts to its environment by altering its internal chemistry. Complex life adjusts to its environment by changing shape or behavior. Intelligent life adjusts to its environment by building new tools. Drake guessed 0.01, for reasons unknown. I'm going to guess 0.5, because I think that the leap to multi-cell life is the rare part. Once you clear that hurdle, the rest is gravy.

Fc: Now we devolve into hand-waving. We have no idea how to estimate this. Drake guessed 0.01, pretty much by pulling a number out of his hat. From our own history, we know of cultures that just never got around to fiddling with machines. And we also know that writing was only independently invented a handful of times. I think 0.01 might be too low, but I do think that 0.1 might be about right.

L: Marconi's experiments in radio date from approximately 1900, so we know this is at least 110 years. Frank Drake estimated this to be 10,000 years, and more recently Michael Schermer estimated this number at 420 years, based on an analysis of civilizations in our own past. I've been thinking on this myself lately, and I'm wondering if L actually measures what we think it measures. It doesn't necessarily measure how long a civilization lasts. It measures how long they use analog AM or FM signals as their primary means of communication. A civilization won't necessarily "go dark" because they blow themselves up. They'll more likely "go dark" because they move to more tightly-beamed transmissions, digital communications, fiber optics, frequency-hopping, or any of a dozen other similar technologies. Back in 1960, they thought radio was forever. It may instead be a phase civilizations go through. I'm thinking that window of opportunity is two centuries wide, at most.


N = 7 x 0.5 x 0.04 x 1 x 0.5 x 0.1 x 200 = 1.4

If these estimates are valid, it means that we're probably not alone, but we're not likely to find anyone interested in interstellar ham radio anytime real soon.

But we may as well keep looking. It's not like we have anything better to do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXVI

Alan Shepard had a long, hard road between his two space missions. An inner-ear problem kept him grounded for most of the 1960s, until an experimental procedure restored him to flight status in time for Apollo 14. These clips are from a 1998 HBO mini-series, From The Earth To The Moon. If you can grab this on Netflix, the whole thing is well worth a look.

And, an interview with Alan Shepard on the 20th anniversary of the mission:

Friday, November 05, 2010

Election 2010 Postmortem

The results are in, and they're interesting to say the least. Just like we do every two years, the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate went up for election. As expected, the Democrats lost control of the House. Also as expected, they retained control of the Senate. But neither the victories nor the losses are entirely as they would seem on the surface. And, as a bonus feature, two other odds and ends from the week that I thought would be important.

(1) The Results: Currently, the tally looks something like this:

House of Representatives: 242 Republicans, 193 Democrats
Senate: 47 Republicans, 53 Democrats

Note that I put the Senate's Independents with the party they'd be expected support.

The pre-election predictions under-estimated the Republican gains in the House, and slightly over-estimated gains in the Senate. The main story here, I think, is the continuing lousy economy. We've known since about January that the Democrats would pay a steep price for holding the bag this year, and here's the pay-out. As I've said before, it may not be right or fair, but conditions like this always play against the party in power. The other big story of this election cycle was the heavy involvement of Tea Party activists, which brings us to ...

(2) The Tea Party: The Tea Party both did and did not help the Republicans. Their enthusiasm may well have put a few candidates over the top that otherwise wouldn't have made it. However, if we examine the results using the Electoral Explorer feature, an interesting picture emerges:

Non-Tea-Party House Races: 200 Republicans, 104 Democrats, 2 currently undecided
Tea-Party House Races: 39 Republicans, 83 Democrats, 7 currently undecided

In sum, Republicans not affiliated with the Tea Party won two races for every loss, and Tea Party Republicans lost two races for every win. I don't know precisely what this means, but surely, it's important. My gut feeling is that the contentious nature of Tea Party candidates had a tendency to backfire amongst moderate voters.

Still, it's pretty clear to me that not only did the Tea Party not win the House for the GOP, they may well have cost them the Senate. I think John Boehner may have figured this out. On Wednesday, he did not exactly sound like someone who had routed an opponent and had them on the run. The question is, who else has figured this out? Will the Tea Party activists continue to agitate and demand for ever more extreme candidates? Will they claim this as their victory, and carry this through into 2012?

The next election cycle could prove very interesting, indeed.

(3) A House Divided: And so, we find ourselves once again with a divided government. This is not especially unusual for us. We had such for most of Reagan's two terms, and for most of Clinton's two terms. It wasn't the end of the world then, and it won't be now. What I said before still holds: after a period of such intense change, it may well be a good thing to take a bit of a breather. The Executive and the Legislature will find a way to work together, sort of, if only to keep the government from shutting down altogether. But don't expect any major initiatives. The bad thing about this is that major decisions will probably get kicked down the road, and you can only get away with that for so long.

(4) ...It Must Be A Damn Peculiar Question: Jerry Brown? I didn't know he was still in politics. Either that, or the Terminator's last act before resuming his mission for Skynet was to open a rift to the '70s. Still, this -- even this -- isn't the weirdest thing to happen in California politics. There was a Congressional election from 1948 that merits notice. Republican Congressman Richard Nixon was facing a grueling, bitter contest against the winner of the Democratic primary ... Richard Nixon. Yes, Californians used to be able to register for both primaries. History leaves us no record of the Nixon-Nixon debates, but they must have been quite a show. All kidding aside, I wish Governor Brown all the luck in the world. He'll need it.

(5) A Fire in the Sky: This is just about the last thing you want to see when you look out of an airplane's window:

You've probably heard by now about the Quantas A380 that had to return to Singapore due to an engine fire. The immediate question that rose when I saw this picture was: is there a problem with this engine? This particular A380 uses the Rolls Royce Trent 900 engine, which was developed from the Trent 800 used in the Boeing 777. I had started to wonder about what kind of failure cascade could produce such an accident ... but today, we see this news item about yet another Quantas flight suffering engine trouble, this time a Boeing 747-400. Needless to say, this aircraft does not employ the Trent 900, although I think it does use another Rolls Royce engine. Anyway, I've stopped wondering about possible design flaws. It's probably time for someone to take a nice long look at Quantas' Singapore maintenance shop. [Addendum, 8Nov10: Then again, maybe not. BBC World Service had an item this morning regarding tests Quantas engineers have been running on their A380 fleet. They have identified problems with four of their six aircraft, which works out to one in six of their Trent 900 engines, if I understood it correctly. They haven't identified the specific problem yet, but it appears to be a oil leak of some kind in the turbine section. So, we may be back to my original guess, a problem arising from mating the Trent 500 core to the Trent 800 fan section.]

(6) At Last! By great good fortune, someone else has taken up the Sesquicentennial project. Disunion is a new feature over at the New York Times, updating several times a week. This is almost assuredly by chance, but I am simply delighted. Not just because I'm happy not to be doing this alone anymore, but for another set of perspectives. As I've said before, I've got the background to analyze the strategy, tactics, and such; but there are gaps in my education I don't know how to fill. This will be a tremendous resource for those of us interested in peering back a century and a half at our greatest crisis.

In any event, we've come to the end of yet another election season. It was a good one for some, a bad one for others. Either way, there's another one coming in two years' time. That's the great thing about our system. It's never completely, finally over. You always get another chance.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part VI: Election 1860


One hundred fifty years ago, our ancestors were going to the polls during an election season far more contentious than the current one could ever dream of being, Glenn Beck's histrionics to the contrary. The four-way scrum that was the campaign of 1860 was coming to a close. But here's the odd thing: even though on paper we see four campaigns vying for the Presidency, only in a handful of cases were all four competing head-to-head. Because of the sectional nature of the parties in this election, it came down to two-way, or at most three-way races, depending on where you were. This election featured another novelty: two technologies were coming of age that would, between them, change the way elections were conducted forever.

But first, the contestants.

We've already covered the fratricidal Democratic convention of 1860, that produced two nominees for President: Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, representing the Northern and Southern wings of the party, respectively. And we've already covered the Republican convention of 1860, where the "dark horse" candidacy of Abraham Lincoln sprang from out of nowhere to seize the nomination. The fourth party in the fray was the Constitutional Union party, whose motto was "The Constitution As It Was, And The Union As It Was." They were the part of status-quo compromise, and they nominated John Bell from Tennessee as their candidate for President.

The Constitutional Union party was an interesting outfit. Basically, their goal wasn't to get John Bell elected President so much as it was to gain enough electoral votes that none of the other candidates could secure a clear majority of the Electoral College. In short, they were running as spoilers, but spoilers with a purpose. Their real goal was to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where they hoped cooler heads might prevail. It was an interesting theory.

Three of the four candidates ran a more or less traditional campaign for the day. Their candidates stayed home, while their men in each state went on the stump to give speeches. Lincoln stayed in Illinois for the most part. Breckenridge, as Buchanan's Vice President, stayed in Washington. Bell stayed at home in Tennessee. Stephen Douglas, however, did no such thing. Douglas hit the rails.

Of all the campaigns, the Northern wing of the Democratic party was the only one to mount a truly national campaign, and Douglas went out on the stump himself, trying to gather support. Ten years prior, this would never have been possible; but now, enough rail lines had been built to connect most of the country's major cities. Now, a candidate actually could canvass the length and breadth of the land. It was a grueling ordeal for Douglas, but he could at least claim to be the first to have done it. For the rest, Bell concentrated his efforts on the border states between North and South, while Breckenridge and Lincoln concentrated on the South and the North, respectively. So, in the North, you generally had a two-way race between Lincoln and Douglas, with a few old Whigs backing Bell. In the South, you had a two-way race between Douglas and Breckenridge, with (again) a few old whigs pulling for Bell. Only in the middle did you have a no-holds-barred full-contact four-way brawl. And, the funny thing was, the border states wanted none of it.

On November 6, 1860, the people went to the polls to decide the matter. And here is where the other new technology came into play. In years prior, it might take months to know who won an election. This is why the Electoral College doesn't even meet until two months after the election. They had to allow enough time for the votes to reach the county seats to be counted. Then they had to wait for the votes to reach the State capitals to be counted. Then the votes had to make it to Washington ... But that had all changed. With the telegraph, news could cross the land as fast as a spark could race down the wire. Mind you, the official tally would still take time to collate and send in; but an unofficial count would serve just as well to let you know how it's going to shake out. By and large, at least in the major cities, when their morning papers were delivered on November 7, citizens knew who had won.

The distribution of votes was interesting, and showed pretty clearly how people were thinking. Douglas only won two states, New Jersey and Missouri. In Missouri, his popular sovereignty platform resonated. But no one else was interested. Bell's Constitutional Union party won in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This makes sense, when you realize that the Constitutional Union party was the choice for people who wanted to avoid war at all costs. The border states knew all too well who'd be hosting that party. Lincoln took every state north of Bell's winnings except only Maryland, and he also took Oregon and California. Breckenridge took the rest.

When the dust cleared, Lincoln took the lead, with 180 electoral votes. Breckenridge won only 72, Bell had taken 39, with Douglas winning 12.

The Fire-Eaters' worst fears had come to life. Come March 4 of 1861, Abraham Lincoln would be sworn in as the sixteenth President of the United States. In each of the Southern states, calls went out for a state convention, to consider bills of secession. The conventions would convene towards the middle of November, and tender their results sometime in December.

The match had now been lit and dropped. The fuse was burning.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Election 2010: You Fail Civics Forever

Over at the site TV Tropes, you'll find a whole mess of stuff. Nominally, at least, it's about storytelling tropes. It's ended up containing that, and a whole lot more. Some of my favorite lists on the site are along the lines of "You Fail (blank) Forever", containing examples of epic failures of understanding in such diverse fields as Engineering, Nuclear Physics, History, and Biology.

They do not yet have a You Fail Civics Forever page. They should start one:

How anyone with a functional reading knowledge of the English language can read, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion" and NOT see a clear separation of Church and State is, quite frankly, beyond me. But that's the Tea Party for you: volkisch religious populists pretending to be libertarians. They're already showing the signs of learning the wrong lessons from November, and November isn't even here yet.

In any case, the election is upon us. It's still eleven days off, but I'm comfortable enough with the tools we have to make a few predictions. Last time, the numbers were pretty solid as far as three weeks out, after all. Courtesy of Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight, and the bettors at Intrade, here are the numbers:

Senate: Democrats keep the Senate, 52-48, 58% chance
House of Representatives: Republicans win control, 230-204, 90% chance

Which means that nothing much is going to get done on the legislative front, unless it's got true, broad bi-partisan appeal. Gridlock is the way to bet, I think. The House Republicans may feel bold enough to play political "chicken" and risk a government shutdown by stalling spending bills. That won't work any better for them than it did for them in the '90s, but they'll probably try anyway.

Still, gridlock isn't the worst thing in the world that could happen. Consider this from a business person's perspective. The last few years have held nothing but upheavals. The rules have been totally re-written in terms of health care coverage, and in rules governing financial markets. While it's true that good and valuable legislation doesn't get passed under gridlock, it's also true that the rules stop changing, and that can be a good thing. It removes uncertainty. It allows you to plan ahead with more confidence and certainty. At least, slightly cynical small-L libertarians like myself tend to see things that way.

And things are primed for a recovery. The news we hear out of Wall Street these days are full of really good earnings reports. You may grind your teeth when you compare this with the pretty lousy job reports ... but remember, this is how it was playing out in the early '90s, too. This is the last step in the economic cycle, right before the recovery and expansion really get moving. All that's needed is a bit of respite from horribly bad news.

And here's where I think that the Tea Party is going to learn the wrong lesson from the election. They think the election is a referendum on Obama's policies, when it's really a referendum on current economic conditions, which still pretty much stink if you're looking for work. And they think that 2012 will be more of the same, when it'll really be a referendum on prevailing economic conditions twenty-four months from now. It's all about the economy. Ideology has nothing to do with it. But ideologues will never, ever understand that. Which is why, come 2012, the Tea Party is liable to run the wrong campaign for the wrong election.

With that in mind, I'll make a long-range prediction for the next election cycle. Come Spring 2012, if unemployment is significantly down, if business is doing well, and if there aren't any horrifying disasters on the foreign front, Obama wins re-election in a cake-walk. If we're still in the doldrums, he gets turfed ignominiously.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Election 2010: Race for Texas Governor

The race for Governor of Texas is underway, and the loser has to take the job.

I'm joking, of course, but only slightly. Newcomers from other states don't always understand how little the Governorship actually matters here, coming as they do from states where Governors actually wield considerable independent authority. The Governor of Texas is, comparatively, a very weak position. The Lieutenant Governor is the person who actually has the job of presiding over the Legislature, and has considerable powers to influence legislation. The Governor's powers are mostly those of persuasion, and he is therefore largely dependent upon how much cooperation he gets from the independently-elected Lieutenant Governor.

There are three candidates worth mentioning, although in practice only the first two matter. The incumbent, Rick Perry, is running on the Republican ticket. Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, is running on the Democratic ticket. And Kathie Glass, a Houston lawyer, is running on the Libertarian ticket.

Rick Perry has not been an incompetent Governor. This is damning with faint praise, since a circus chimp could probably be trained to do the job. As I've said before, you could probably shave an ape and sew him into a Brooks Brothers suit, then shove him into the Governor's office, and it might be months before anyone noticed. He's done some pretty appalling things, like speaking favorably of secession, and quashing an investigation into the possible innocence of a man on Death Row. It would be a grand thing indeed if he got turfed come November.

Bill White is probably the strongest candidate the Democrats have run for Governor in ... well, quite some time. He's got a solid record as a businessman, and therefore cannot be easily attacked as anti-business. He had a good record as a three-term mayor of Houston, and probably would have been re-elected had he not been term-limited. And the race is a lot closer now than many would have predicted. White is running on Perry's fiscal record as Governor. Arguably, the Governor has damn-all to do with state fiscal policy; we do, after all, have a Comptroller as yet another elected office. Even so, it's been a fairly effective tactic. It's a fairly tight race as of late October. Intrade is giving Perry a 63% chance of victory. It was in the 80s and 90s as of a few months ago.

I know next to nothing about Kathie Glass, except that she's an attorney and a Libertarian. But since Satan will probably drive to work in a snowplow before she gets anywhere close to double-digits, it hardly matters.

The election is on Tuesday, November 2nd. Vote early, and vote often!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part V: Secession


By early October of 1860, the four-way race for the Presidency was nearing its close. Several of the Southern states had made it plain that they would secede from the Union if a Republican were elected. Two questions were at the forefront: would they, and could they? For the first, many in the North thought that the pronouncements coming from the cotton states were just election-year bluster. For the other... The Constitution has this to say, explicitly, about the legality of secession:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the nub of the problem.

The Founders honestly never imagined the question coming up. It was only by union and concerted action that they had wrested their freedom from Britain at all. As small, independent entities they were sure they'd be gobbled up, piecemeal. So, while they were very careful to detail the procedures for new territories joining up, they neglected to consider the possibility that any would bolt the fold, once inside. And for fifty years, near enough, they were right.

The question weighed heavily on peoples' minds that autumn. Is it legal, or not? There are two broad approaches to the question, one Constitutional and one based on contracts, and each one can be argued pro or con.

First, there's the fact that the Constitution has nothing explicit to say on the matter. Most American jurisdictions draw their legal traditions from English Common Law, and as such, unless something is expressly prohibited, it's permissible by default. By this line of reasoning, the fact that it's not specifically prohibited meant that secession was perfectly legal.

But there's another Constitutional argument in play. If you interpret the Preamble as having the force of law, the phrase "to form a more perfect Union" implies an indivisible Union, since an indivisible Union is clearly more perfect than a divisible one. Further, one of the Anti-Federalist arguments against adoption of the Constitution was that such a strong Federal goverment implied a perpetual Union, posing a threat to State sovereignty.

Another argument flows from the nature of contracts. Some contracts can be terminated at will by either party. Some hold that the accession of a State to the Union follows this model, and any State is free to exercise it's sovereign prerogative at any time. But there's a counter-argument here, too; some contracts require both parties' agreement to end, like marriage. Under this interpretation, the accession of a State is an agreement between the State and Congress. Both would have to agree in order to sever their connection.

But an even larger point loomed, that even the most ardent Fire-Eater would be compelled to take notice of. What about the property to which the Federal government held clear title? Customs houses, armories, forts and the like?

No one was thinking about those yet. They should have. They would come to regret this oversight, in months and years to come.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXV

The world's smallest stop-motion video (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan):

It's from Aardman, naturally enough, the same fine studio that brought us Wallace and Gromit. And it's pretty awesome.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Election 2010: T-46 Days

In forty-six days, we'll go to the polls to elect the next Congress -- the entire House of Representatives, and one-third of the Senate. It's liable to be a bad year to be a Democrat. But first, we'll look at the numbers:


Democrats retain control of the Senate: 64.6%
Democrats retain control of the House: 29.0%

Republicans get control of the Senate: 25.4%
Republicans get control of the House: 68.7%

(Interestingly enough, Intrade quotes 15% chance that neither party will control the Senate. I'm fairly sure that outcome isn't even possible.)


House Seats Solidly D: 168
House Seats Leaning D: 46
House Seats Tossup: 34
House Seats Leaning R: 19
House Seats Solidly R: 168

Senate Seats Solidly D: 46
Senate Seats Leaning D: 5
Senate Seats Tossup: 9
Senate Seats Leaning R: 5
Senate Seats Solidly R: 36

(Continuing seats are included in the "Solidly" count.)

As it stands today, the Republicans have to run the table in the "toss-up" districts to recapture the House. Which is possible, and I'd say even likely, given the current state of the country.

The main story of this election cycle isn't really the Tea Party, although they've made the most noise. The reason that this year is poison for the Democrats is all about the economy, and that's about the size of it. Just like last time, except that the party in power has changed. The recovery is underway, but has not gathered enough steam yet to make a big difference on Main Street. Therefore, too many people are still out of work or underemployed, and there's a vast reservoir of discontent amongst the electorate. This, more than anything else, is why we're liable to have a new Speaker of the House come January.

What it's not is an indictment of Democrats' support for the health care bill, except tangentially. Obama spent a large amount of time, effort, and political capital to get that bill passed. There is a perception that this took time and effort away from economic matters. Whether the charge is true or not is almost irrelevant, the perception is still there, and it's going to hurt.

What it's also not, is a broader acceptance of the Tea Party and its principles. This is the point that is liable to be very interesting indeed going forward from 2010 into 2012. The Republicans are probably going to recapture the House ... and may well learn the wrong lesson from their victory.

The right lesson to learn would be that the American public wants the economy moving again. What they're not especially interested in is a Congress that's locked in an ideological war with the White House, getting nothing of interest done. That's an outcome that doesn't really do them any good two years down the road. If they take a hard line, they give Obama a free ride to tack towards the center, and a run at re-election as a centrist moderate.

I think it's entirely probable that they will take a hard line. In its current, Tea Party driven form, the GOP has doubled down on the crazy. They'll interpret their win in November as a mandate, and the blow-back will be a harsh surprise to them.

This, of course, assumes that a reasonably strong recovery is underway in two years' time. I think that's the way to bet. If it's not, all bets are off. But if it shakes out the way I expect, the Republicans will pay a stiff price in 2012 for ideological recalcitrance today.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010

Who's On First?

There's an old saying that no plan ever survives contact with reality intact. The crew rotation plan used in Project Apollo is a good object lesson.

The crew rotation was something that had been used throughout the American space program, at least up to the Shuttle. If there was ever a crew rotation for the Shuttle, I've never been able to figure out how it worked. The basic idea is, the backup crew for Mission 1 would be the prime crew three missions later. It gave the pilots a better idea of where they stood, and cut a lot of the drama out of what was already a fairly tense environment. More specifically, for Apollo, the Command Module Pilot would be the Commander of the backup crew three missions later, which means that he would be Commander himself, six missions later.

And it worked. More or less. But, it was a very bumpy road.

By way of illustration, we're going to look at the original prime and backup crews for the first three Apollo missions. We'll skip ahead to mid-1968, since it's pretty obvious how Apollo 1 altered the rotation.

This is how it looked in mid-1968. (Note: the real crew assignments don't completely line up.)

Apollo 7 Prime Crew: Wally Schirra (CDR), Donn Eisele (CMP), Walter Cunningham (LMP)
Apollo 7 Backup Crew: Tom Stafford (CDR), John Young (CMP), Eugene Cernan (LMP)
Apollo 8 Prime Crew: Frank Borman (CDR), Michael Collins (CMP), William Anders (LMP)
Apollo 8 Backup Crew: Neil Armstrong (CDR), Jim Lovell (CMP), Buzz Aldrin (LMP)
Apollo 9 Prime Crew: James McDivitt (CDR), David Scott (CMP), Russell Schweickart (LMP)
Apollo 9 Backup Crew: Charles Conrad (CDR), Richard Gordon (CMP), Alan Bean (LMP)

Now, from the rotation, we can guess the crew assignments for Apollo 10:

Apollo 10 Prime Crew: Tom Stafford (CDR), John Young (CMP), Eugene Cernan (LMP)
Apollo 10 Backup Crew: Donn Eisele (CDR), Walter Cunningham (LMP), Edgar Mitchell (LMP)

It's a nice theory ... except that this is what really happened:

Apollo 10 Prime Crew: Tom Stafford (CDR), John Young (CMP), Eugene Cernan (LMP)
Apollo 10 Backup Crew: Gordon Cooper (CDR), Donn Eisele (CMP), Edgar Mitchell (LMP)

Well, that's nice... What in the world happened here? Apollo 7 happened, that's what. Wally Schirra had a nasty cold for pretty much the entire flight, and was in a foul mood. This carried over into his relationship with Mission Control, and since the Commander sets the tone for his crew, it spilled over into their ability to work with Mission Control as well. It's not well-publicized, but Mission Control does exercise a kind of veto over crew assignments. If Mission Control decides that this is a man they can't work with ... well, that man never flies again. Eisele was being given a rotation as Command Module Pilot, to see if he'd be able to cut it. This was also the case with Cooper. Ordinarily, you'd expect Cooper to draw an early Commander's slot, being the only other Mercury veteran still on flight status. But, Cooper had developed a rather lax attitude towards training during Gemini, and was being given a backup slot to prove himself.

Now, let's look at what we expect Apollo 11 to look like:

Apollo 11 Prime Crew: Neil Armstrong (CDR), Jim Lovell (CMP), Buzz Aldrin (LMP)
Apollo 11 Backup Crew: Michael Collins (CDR), William Anders (CMP), Fred Haise (LMP)

You may be thinking that doesn't look quite right. Here is what really happened:

Apollo 11 Prime Crew: Neil Armstrong (CDR), Michael Collins (CMP), Buzz Aldrin (LMP)
Apollo 11 Backup Crew: Jim Lovell (CDR), William Anders (CMP), Fred Haise (LMP)

Here, it wasn't a performance issue with Collins, it was a medical problem. After the original assignments had been made in 1968, Collins needed shoulder surgery, and had to swap seats with Lovell. Which meant that Collins ended up on the backup crew for all intents and purposes, and thus the prime crew on Apollo 11.

Nothing especially interesting happened to Apollo 12 as far as crew rotations went. But for Apollo 13 and Apollo 14, things got ... interesting.

Apollo 13 was originally going to be Cooper/Eisele/Mitchell, and Apollo 14 was going to be Lovell/Anders/Haise. First off, Bill Anders took a job with the National Space Council, and had to be replaced on the crew of Apollo 14. He was replaced by Ken Mattingly. The crew for Apollo 13 went through an almost complete re-shuffle. Cooper didn't do well enough to impress Deke Slayton, and neither did Eisele, so they both had to be replaced. Eisele was replaced by Stu Roosa. It was more or less at this point that Alan Shepard, another Mercury veteran, returned to flight status after a lengthy medical problem. This was a Godsend for Slayton, who was otherwise going to have a hard time filling that seat ... but Shepard would need extra time to train. So, he swapped the crews for Apollo 13 and Apollo 14. Apollo 13 would be Lovell/Mattingly/Haise, and Apollo 14 would be Shepard/Roosa/Mitchell.

Except, of course, that Mattingly was exposed to German measles a week before flight, and had to be replaced with his backup, Jack Swigert. Although it didn't feel like it on the day, it ended up being a good deal for Mattingly. Apollo 13, as you might remember, wasn't exactly a fun ride.

Now, one last example: let's see if we can figure out the backup crew for Apollo 14:

Apollo 14 Backup Crew: Michael Collins (CDR), Buzz Aldrin (CMP), Joe Engle (LMP)

This would have been the prime crew for Apollo 17. Which, of course, had a completely different crew:

Apollo 17 Prime Crew: Eugene Cernan (CDR), Ron Evans (CMP), Jack Schmitt (LMP)

As it turns out, the post-mission publicity pegged the fun-meters for Collins and Aldrin, and they lit out for greener pastures. Slayton would ordinarily have picked a veteran CMP to promote to Commander ... but there weren't any to be had. The Apollo 9 CMP was already training for Apollo 15, and the Apollo 12 crew was also deep into their new assignments. Conrad and Bean would command the first two Skylab missions. Slayton's crew rotation was now officially in an inverted spin with all engines on fire. So, it developed that Cernan was promoted directly from LMP to CDR, without having had a turn at CMP first. Ron Evans was assigned as the CMP. Engle ... well, he drew short straw after Apollo 18 was cancelled. The LMP for Apollo 18 was to have been Jack Schmitt, a trained geologist. It was considered intolerable that the Apollo program should end without a scientist ever touching the lunar surface. So, Engle got bumped. At the time, he said that the hardest thing about that was having to tell his young son that his Dad wouldn't be going to the Moon.

But he ended up all right. Joe Engle went on to command the second flight of the Space Shuttle, in 1981.

[Personal Note: I actually met Joe Engle in 1986, and got his autograph. It's the only one I own.]

At the end of the day, this points up the fact that history isn't a study of things or even events, but of people. And people ... well, they can be pretty weird. Weird, but always interesting.

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXIII

This is a really silly song. But in a good way...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part IV: The Tale of the Tape


The main advantage to looking back on these events from a century and a half is that so much information is available and indexed. For example, the 1860 Census is available online. The linked report lists, in detail, the number of manufacturers in each State. (For what it's worth, it took the Department of the Interior five years to collate the returns and generate this report.)

And so: we're going to borrow a term from boxing, the Tale of the Tape. We'll stack the disputants up, side by side, by three different figures of merit: population, miles of railroad, and number of manufacturers.

Population by State

(All states and regions listed by {free population}/{slave population})

New England:
Connecticut ........ 460,147/0
Maine .............. 628,279/0
Massachusetts ...... 1,231,066/0
New Hampshire ...... 326,073/0
Rhode Island ....... 174,620/0
Vermont ............ 315,098/0
New England Total: 3,135,283/0

Middle States:
New Jersey ......... 672,017/0
New York ........... 3,880,735/0
Pennsylvania ....... 2,906,215/0
Middle States Total: 7,458,967/0

Middle West:
Illinois ........... 1,711,951/0
Indiana ............ 1,350,428/0
Iowa ............... 674,913/0
Michigan ........... 749,113/0
Minnesota .......... 172,023/0
Ohio ............... 2,339,511/0
Wisconsin .......... 775,881/0
Middle West Total: 7,773,820/0

Far West:
California ......... 379,994/0
Oregon ............. 52,465/0
Far West Total: 432,459/0

Border States:
Delaware ........... 110,418/ 1,798
Dist. of Columbia .. 71,895/ 3,185
Kentucky ........... 930,201/ 225,483
Maryland ........... 599,860/ 87,189
Missouri ........... 1,067,081/ 114,931
Border States Total: 2,779,455/ 432,586

Upper South:
Arkansas ........... 324,335/ 111,115
North Carolina ..... 661,563/ 331,099
Tennessee .......... 834,082/ 275,719
Virginia ........... 1,105,453/ 490,865
Upper South Total: 2,945,433/1,208,798

Lower South:
Alabama ............ 519,121/ 435,080
Florida ............ 78,679/ 61,745
Georgia ............ 505,088/ 462,198
Louisiana .......... 376,276/ 331,726
Mississippi ........ 354,674/ 436,631
South Carolina ..... 301,302/ 402,406
Lower South Total: 2,135,140/2,129,786

Miles of Railroad by State

New England:
Maine .............. 472
New Hampshire ...... 661
Vermont ............ 554
Massachusetts ...... 1,264
Rhode Island ....... 108
Connecticut ........ 601
New England Total: 3,660

Middle States: (note -- source missed NY and NJ)
Pennsylvania ....... 2,598
Delaware ........... 127
Maryland ........... 386
Middle States Total: 3,111

Western States: (note -- source missed MN)
Ohio ............... 2,946
Indiana ............ 2,163
Illinois ........... 2,790
Wisconsin .......... 905
Iowa ............... 655
Missouri ........... 817
Kentucky ........... 534
Western Total: 10,810

Southern States:
Virginia ........... 1,379
North Carolina ..... 937
South Carolina ..... 973
Georgia ............ 1,420
Florida ............ 402
Alabama ............ 743
Mississippi ........ 862
Louisiana .......... 335
Texas .............. 307
Arkansas ........... 38
Tennessee .......... 1,253
Southern Total: 8,649

Manufacturing by Region
New England ........ 20,671
Middle States ...... 53,287
Western States ..... 36,795
Southern States .... 20,631

For the moment, I'll simply leave these numbers up without comment. This is simply a snapshot of the industrial status of the United States in the summer of 1860. This status will become of vital importance later on in the year. We will refer back to this table later on.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXIII

It's hard to believe, really, that there are only two flights left for the Space Shuttle program. It's been a long, long road. The program was approved by President Nixon in 1972, and the final design was chosen in 1973. The first test vehicle, Enterprise, was rolled out on September 17, 1976. Its first glide test took place on August 12, 1977. Five Orbiters have flown in space: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Only three are left. Challenger was lost on the way up, and Columbia on the way down.

Atlantis has already flown its last scheduled flight, it's standing ready as the rescue ship should anything go wrong with the last two flights. Discovery is scheduled to take its last flight on November 1st, with Endeavour closing out the program on February 26, 2011.

For all its problems, it's been a marvelous vehicle. More humans have ridden into space on Space Shuttles than any other vehicle in history. That's a record that won't stand forever. But it may well stand for a couple of decades.

Without further comment, here's Endeavour making a night re-entry and landing at KSC Runway 33.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXII

In the beginning, there was Burt Rutan. Burt Rutan knows more about building airplanes than just about any other human alive today. One of his first designs was a kit-built airplane called the VariEze. It was so named because it was easy to build, and easy to fly. It was one of the first airplanes to make extensive use of then-new composite materials. Paradoxically, it really was far easier and cheaper for hobbyists to build airplanes out of styrofoam and fiberglass than out of aluminum. It takes years to learn to weld. You can learn how to lay up fiberglass in a long afternoon.

Time passed.

Then came a company called XCOR Aerospace. They build rocket engines. They looked at an old VariEze and thought, "We can make it better." And so, they did:

This, I think, is just about the smallest rocket-powered airplane you're ever going to see. But it's only the beginning. This was the first prototype for a racing airplane. They intend to build a series of similar craft for their proposed Rocket Racing League. Imagine the Indy 500, fifty yards right overhead.

Yes, there's a reason they do these things out in the Mojave Desert.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Video Del Fuego, Part XXXI

Some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.

French missile technology is, on the whole, quite good. In fact, the survivors of the HMS Sheffield would say it's just a little bit too good. But the ERYX Anti-Tank Guided Missile is known to be something of a stinker.

I'm sure those guys all got out OK. ATGMs have to fly a certain distance downrange before the fuze will arm. The state of their laundry, on the other hand...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part III: The Past is Prologue


How did it come to this? How did it get so bad that the signs became so big that even a blind man could see them? The Election of 1860 had shaped up into a four-way scrum that was probably going to tear the country apart no matter who won. Only one and two generations before, their fathers and grandfathers had fought side-by-side against the British; now, they were practically baying for one another's blood. How did it get so bad, so fast?

There was a fundamental problem baked into the Constitution at its inception in 1787. Everyone knew what it was, but no one wanted to tackle the problem straight away. The coming storm would be the price of procrastination. But to understand the problem, and how it shaped the development of the United States during the first half of the 19th Century, we have to dig back a lot farther than that.

The first thing to understand is that passage from the Old World to the New wasn't exactly free. The ships involved in setting up the first colonies back in the 1600s represented the pinnacle of the day's technology. They might well have been dropped off in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but they rode there in the Space Shuttles of their day.

Not all of them could afford the fare for the trip. Actually, only about one in five could. The rest partook of an arrangement called indentured servitude.

Being an indentured servant wasn't any fun, but there was an end to it. Once you fulfilled your contract, usually three to seven years' labor, you were free to go about whatever business you could find. There was always new land to be broken up for farming.

Initially, this was how all of the North American colonies were populated. But, in parallel with this, another system of unfree labor was taking shape. In the labor-intensive tobacco plantations of Virginia, and also in Spanish Florida, farmers began to import Africans as slaves. Soon, these plantations stopped using indentured servants entirely, for several reasons. For one, no one in his right mind would sign an indenture contract to go hustle tobacco in Virginia, or (God help you) the Carolinas, when he could go to New England instead. There were few takers at any price, so the planters eventually stopped asking. For another, it takes a while to teach a new hand how the job is done, and that training is lost when the indenturee completes his contract.

So, even by the time of the Revolution, the northern and southern sections of the country had a markedly different composition. The North was a region of smaller farms, tradesmen, and craftsmen; a diverse economy based on manufacturing and trade. The South was dominated by wealthy planters who owned large plantations, and their economy lived or died by the export of their cash crop. The North was trending towards increasing egalitarianism, while the South was trending towards an entrenched aristocracy.

That was the situation as of 1787. Each side had its doubts about the other, but both needed each other in the face of the external enemy, the British. This state of affairs lasted to about 1820. Then, the knives started to come out.

It was all about the balance of power in the Senate. For the South, it was vital to maintain if not a majority, then at least a parity of power in the Senate. This would allow them enough seats in the upper house to block any Constitutional changes that would affect the institution of slavery. They were keen, very keen, on inducting new States into the Union that would permit slavery, and thereby keep parity. They were content to go one-for-one with the North on this. That is where the Missouri Compromise came from. Basically, this was the disposition of the new territories purchased for the Union by President Jefferson. The State of Missouri would be admitted as a slave-holding State. Slavery would be allowed in unincorporated territory south of parallel 36°30' north latitude, and forbidden in territories to the north.

Many observers hailed the Missouri Compromise as a triumph of negotiation. Not everyone was satisfied. Thomas Jefferson foresaw doom when he wrote to a friend that "this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror." He was right, because the Missouri Compromise Line basically sealed the deal, but it would be another generation before that fact became clear.

The next crisis would involve the Mexican-American War of 1848. In 1836, Texas fought a successful revolution against Mexico, and became an independent republic. But Texas was saddled with a massive debt that was becoming impossible to pay. So, Texas decided discretion was the better part of valor, and petitioned the United States Congress for entry to the Union in 1845. Congress accepted their offer, since Texas brought a nice chunk of land along with them ... except, of course, that they didn't necessarily have clear title to the land on offer. Mexico begged to differ. Mexico probably had a valid point, but the tips of General Taylor's soldiers' bayonets were pointier still, and carried the day. Mexico lost not only the disputed land that Texas had claimed, but everything between that and the Pacific as well.

On the one hand, people across the United States rubbed their hands together: "Oh boy! More land!" But on the other hand ... "Oh crap! NOW what do we do? How do we divide this mess up?" It took a couple of years to sort everything out. The basic shape of the deal was that the Missouri Compromise line would be extended to the Pacific. South of 36°30', slavery OK; north, forbidden. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bargaining table...

In 1849, a curious mineral find in California changed everything. Yes, sports fans, there's gold in them thar hills! Men flocked to California to get in on this action. Enough, in fact, to allow a shrewd group of Californians to petition the Union for Statehood. In an ordinary year they'd have been ignored. But they had gold, and plenty of it, and then just like now, cash talked.

And California entered the Union as a state forbidding slavery.

That sound you just heard was an echo of the wail of frustration from the South when they looked at this map:

Just like that, they'd been outflanked.

This was when the desperation began to flourish. This was when the really crazy things began to percolate. Like the Knights of the Golden Circle, for example; or the plans to invade Cuba and Central America to gain new slave-friendly territory to incorporate as States. This was the older, now-disused meaning of the word filibuster, as applied by one William Walker. Nothing came of any of this ... but any educated Southerner who could read a map knew they were doomed.

And that was ... a problem.

By 1860, there were four million slaves in the United States, collectively worth $3.5 billion. Yes, that's "billion" with a B, and yes, that's 1860. That's equivalent to $75 billion today: roughly the same amount of money (in 2010 dollars) that we spent to put a man on the Moon. Slaves were the single largest capital asset in the entire United States economy. Ahead of the railroads. Ahead of the factories.

Chew on that number for a second, and you'll know why they weren't giving up without a fight. The cause they fought for was evil, but by and large these were not irrational men.

Between 1850 and 1860, positions did nothing but harden. The North knew it held the trump cards, and knew time was on its side. Abolitionists became progressively more vocal and more strident. The South knew that, eventually, they'd be forced to forfeit a gigantic financial asset. Things almost came to a head in 1856, the first year a Republican candidate ran for President. James Buchanan, a Democrat, was elected on the premise that he'd be able to hold the Union together.

It would not come to light until a year later, but Buchanan's Secretary of War, John Floyd, was issuing some ... innovative orders to the Army. He had ordered 115,000 muskets and rifles shipped to Southern armories, and heavy ordinance shipped to depots at Galveston Harbor in Texas and Ship Island in Mississippi. He also saw to it that units posted in the South had, shall we say, sympathetic commanders.

The powder keg and fuse had been set. All it wanted was a match. The Presidential election was only three months away.