Friday, February 19, 2010

A Fine and Enviable Madness

"... it was, in fact, a fine and enviable madness, this delusion that all questions have answers, and nothing is beyond the reach of a strong left arm." -- from The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I love my job. I love the alchemy that takes the stuff of daydreams, and spins it into hard, tangible reality. What we have dreamed, we have done; generations of men dreamed of flight, and dreamed of touching the stars ... and when you look up tonight, you'll see airplanes lazily crossing the sky, and on the Moon our footprints still lay. Generations of physicians dreamed of a world without disease ... and in one singular case, the dream was realized. I've been vaccinated for smallpox, but most people younger than me haven't.

This is National Engineers' Week. We celebrate it during the week of George Washington's observed birthday, in honor of our first President's first career as a surveyor. The mechanic arts as they were called then were recognized early to be key to both our prosperity and our security. Whenever America has faced a steep challenge, her engineers have always answered, and delivered the goods.

It's a profession that could easily lead to a swelled head, if Nature wasn't always there to take us down a notch or three as required. We rarely enjoy the "luxury" of hiding our mistakes. An unscrupulous doctor might hide their mistakes in the morgue, and an incompetent lawyer's mistakes vanish into the prison system. But an engineer's mistakes? They tend to come unglued with a loud BANG overhead, distributing debris over two or three time zones. We never have to look far for accountability, it always comes looking for us.

But most of us don't chafe under that kind of responsibility, rather, we relish it. We enjoy knowing that our work counts for something. We don't dread the possibility of highly-visible failure; the challenge motivates us to make our work as clean and error-free as we know how. The challenge -- the satisfaction of having done a difficult job well -- is a large part of what gets us out of bed most mornings.

It can be a crazy life sometimes. Schedules get very unpredictable, close to delivery time. But on the whole I wouldn't have it any other way. It truly is "a fine and enviable madness."

The Sons of Martha

by Rudyard Kipling

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains "Be ye removèd." They say to the lesser floods "Be dry."
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd -- they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit -- then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger Death at their gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden -- under the earthline their altars are --
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city's drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren's days may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd -- they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet -- they hear the Word -- they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and -- the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Stupid Nuke Tricks

One of the most interesting (and to my mind, hopeful) things about the recent State of the Union address was the support that President Obama gave to an increased role for nuclear power in America. It was even better to see that his proposed FY2011 budget included funding for this initiative. While nuclear power does have its hazards, those hazards are manageable if you give sufficient care to planning beforehand. Plus, if you're truly serious about weaning us off of fossil fuels, there's just no way to make up the energy shortfall without nuclear power. The numbers are inexorable. You just can't get there from here, otherwise.

But not all nuclear power is created equal. While some uses are good and responsible, other uses lie somewhere on the continuum between dumb and stone barking mad. We're going to look at some of the crazier ideas to come from my colleagues over the last sixty years or so.

Project Orion: Imagine, if you will, a spacecraft poised for flight. And not just any spacecraft -- this beast tips the scales at ten thousand tons or so. It's stocked with provisions for an expedition to Saturn, the crew is strapped in and ready for launch, and the countdown nears zero. Then, when the count reaches zero, the mighty engine roars to life. It is more or less at this point that an atomic bomb drops down into the gap under the launch gantry and detonates.

Ummm ... say what?

No, that's not a particularly gruesome form of sabotage. Orion is supposed to work that way. The technical name for this is pulsed nuclear propulsion, and the name almost but not quite makes you forget that you're zooming through space by lighting off nukes under your butt.

It all started with one of the early above-ground nuclear tests. They put all kinds of things in the fireball region, just to see what the blast would do. One of the things they tested was a graphite-covered steel sphere. To everyone's astonishment, the sphere was recovered after the blast more or less unharmed. Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson got to discussing this experiment over hamburgers, and had a splendid idea. If you were to take a graphite-coated steel plate, and mount it to the world's biggest shock absorbers, you'd have a dandy rocket system. You could lift absurd amounts of weight, and take it anywhere in the Solar System. And you don't really need a landing gear as such, since anywhere you land is going to be by-God FLAT by the time you get there...

They got as far as building a small test model that flew using chemical explosives, in 1959. "Hot Rod" flew for 23 seconds, to a height of 56 feet, and proved that the principle was at least possible. Then it came time to develop full-scale vehicles ... at which point the higher-ups took notice, and pronounced the idea nuts. The Test Ban Treaty pretty much put a kibosh on the whole idea, to say nothing of what the launch would do to the host state's property values.

Project Pluto: A nuclear missile, by any meaningful use of the word. Not only would it have carried a nuclear warhead, but it would also have been powered by a nuclear ramjet. And in its later iteration, the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, it would carry multiple warheads that it could distribute to several targets. "A fine idea," the brass said, "now how do you propose to test it?" This is a non-trivial problem. A conventional flight-test program would distribute radioactive exhaust over the American southwest. They hit on the idea of a static test using a railroad car, when the same higher-ups that had pronounced Orion crazy saw this plan, and wondered if American universities had a bumper crop of mad scientists that year. SLAM was cancelled in favor of cheaper, safer ICBMs.

Convair X-6: A nuclear bomber. In the same sense that SLAM was a nuclear missile. In the early days, SAC had a problem, in that their bombers didn't have enough range to reach the Soviet Union from bases in the United States. Several solutions were proposed to this problem, one of which was -- you guessed it -- a bomber powered by a nuclear reactor. On paper it looked like a good idea. Fuel wasn't an issue, so the airplane could stay airborne as long as the crew had food and water. So, they modified a Convair B-36 bomber into the X-6 configuration to see if the idea was in any way practical. The X-6 accumulated 216 hours of flight time, 86 of those with a live reactor, between 1955 and 1957. The test program was scrapped after that. The reason was that aerial refueling technology was cheaper and safer, and besides, no one was really excited about the prospects of cleaning up after one of these things crashed.

Ford Nucleon: Ah, the 1950s. The era of big cars, chrome, fins, nuclear-powered sedans ...

Wait. What?

Yes, you read that right. Ford, not satisfied with the Edsel fiasco, designed a concept car in 1958 powered by a nuclear reactor. No stopping for gas -- the Nucleon could cruise a full 5,000 miles on a single charge, at which point you'd roll up to your dealer and have them install a fresh reactor module. But the car has several obvious flaws. First, given that you're sitting ahead of the front wheels, steering without hitting anything is liable to be a sporting challenge. And second, rear-end collisions ... well, the Pinto had nothing on this baby.

Then again, nothing discourages tailgating quite like the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Now, Ford management never had any serious plans to actually sell this monster. They displayed the mock-up just to prove that their mad scientists were just as crazy as anyone else's. They'd been beaten to the punch with the first jet-powered car, after all, and weren't about to fall behind again.

None of these proposals survived the early 1960s. As scientists began to understand the implications of nuclear technology better, they began to understand that nuclear technology needed a lot of care and tending, lest it become a hazard and a nuisance. The more exuberantly insane proposals died a quiet death ... not that exuberant insanity is a bad thing, mind you, but it requires close supervision by the non-crazy. There's good crazy, and there's bad crazy, and someone's got to be able to tell the difference.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Lead, Follow, or ...

Well, that didn't take as long as I thought it would.

Truly, Constellation's fate was sealed with the release of the Augustine report last fall. Without a major increase in funding, there was no way they could pull it off as written, and that increase in funding just wasn't going to happen. I was surprised that the decision was taken now, as opposed to after November's elections. But, taking it all in, I have to say that this is the best news we've had on the manned spaceflight front in years. This isn't the end. It is, in fact, a new beginning.

Let's start with the fact that Orion/Ares wasn't flying anyone anywhere anytime real soon. The erstwhile Shuttle replacement wouldn't fly until at best 2014, and more likely 2017 after the schedule marched to the right a bit. And what would eventually end up flying would be driven more by what the Ares I could lift than by what its intended job would be. That's putting the cart before the horse, with a vengeance.

Now, let's look at what's taking the place of Constellation. Instead of the world's biggest Roman candle, R&D money will go towards development of closed-loop life support systems, high-efficiency rocket engines, and in-space refueling techniques. In short, the Obama Administration has directed NASA to pursue the "Flexible Path" called for in the Augustine report.

The previous NASA Administrator once wrote that spacecraft, like turkeys, are bought by the pound. He was exactly right. And these three technologies will greatly reduce the weight of a manned interplanetary spacecraft. Without closed-loop life support, you'd have to carry along all of the water and air the astronauts would consume during the mission, which can amount to several years' worth. Without high-efficiency engines, a much higher fraction of your vessel must be devoted to fuel. And without in-space refueling, you not only have to loft the tanks fully filled, but once they're empty that's it. If you can transfer fuel, not only can you loft the ship in segments, but you get to use it more than once.

Taken together, this move is a very positive one. This change of policy isn't taking the Moon away, it's giving us the rest of the Universe. As Rand Simberg once said, NASA's job isn't to send people to Mars, it's to develop the technology to let the National Geographic Society send people to Mars. If NASA goes down this path for about twenty years, we might see exactly that.

The future just got a lot more interesting ...