Friday, December 30, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part LI

I saw this on Andrew Sullivan's site, and it was just too good to keep.

I have two dogs of my own, a Chiweenie (Dachshund/Chihuahua mix) and an Australian Shepherd (who we think is also part Labrador). I don't have any movies of them, although Duke (the Aussie) does periodically try to help me with my typing.

And I had some more serious ideas knocking around in my head, but none of them are jelling worth a damn just right now. So, more puppies:

These guys are just adorable. They'd hate it down here, though... We used to have a Sheltie/Husky mix, who we'd have to shave down to a "crew cut" in the summertime. She loved it when it got cold. And snowy. It's a damn shame she didn't live long enough to see last February's snowfall.

Speaking of snow:

Watching puppies did teach me something profound. I now know why God created us. Paradoxically, there's one thing that an omniscient being can never know, except vicariously. And that's the thrill of discovery.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part L

Christmas time is upon us again, which gives us a chance to enjoy some fine music and fine memories. For me, no Christmas is quite complete without the music of Vince Guaraldi. For some reason, embedding has been disabled for this piece, but it's still well worth a listen.

Earl Three has a remix of that piece -- "Christmas is Coming" -- and it's pretty nice, too:

Another Christmas piece I'm fond of is "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses:

And the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's rendition of Carol of the Bells:

And, lastly, a Christmas memory from 43 years ago:

As we close out another year, and look to a new one, I'd like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Cheers!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Techniwockle Confoogalities

It's crunch time at the day gig. I should come up for air in a week or so.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Election 2012 Preview: Handicapping the Primaries, Part IV

One month and one day from today, the Iowa caucuses mark the official kickoff of the 2012 election season. The race has been going full-tilt for about six months now, but this will be the first time that actual voters will be able to weigh in on who they think should contest the Presidency in November, 2012. The time for prognosticating will be mostly over, and we'll actually have real results to chew on. So, for the last time before the voting starts, let's see how the wagering community sees it. (As before, all data from Intrade, current as of Friday afternoon.)

Democratic Party: I'm only including this because I'm a stickler for completeness. By now, it ought to be blindingly obvious that the Obama/Biden ticket will be up for re-election in November.

Barack Obama, 93.5%: In this case, "blindingly obvious" doesn't quite amount to 100% just yet. But that's because you have a few adventurous folks, who are taking a long-odds flier on...

Hillary Clinton, 6.1%: Can't blame 'em. At that price, you'll make over ten for one, if it happens. Which it won't. As I've said earlier, eligible sitting Presidents who want the job never lose renomination. It just doesn't happen.

Joe Biden, 0.6%: Now there's a long shot for you. But sorry, that's money you'll never see again. See above.

Republican Party: And here's where things start to get interesting. We've had several candidates surge, and crash, in succession. First Trump, then Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain. Now ... well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Mitt Romney, 48.2%: Romney has held a fairly steady lead, but his lead is eroding. In the early debates, he really did look like the only adult in the room. Unfortunately, he also looks uncannily like a collaboration between MIT's artificial intelligence lab and their cybernetics department. That is, he looks like a human, talks like a human, but doesn't quite pull off the imitation convincingly. On top of that, a fairly sizable chunk of the Republican electorate has serious misgivings about his religion. This is, and isn't, a head-scratcher for me. On the one hand, I've had Mormon neighbors, and you just won't find any better. On the other, I've talked to Baptists who are convinced that Mormons aren't Christians. In this case, ultimately, the latter will trump the former. Maybe Romney can overcome this, but probably not.

Newt Gingrich, 36.0%: And here we have the "not-Romney" flavor of the month. This honestly surprised me. As late as July, Gingrich was down to 1%, and I'd counted him DOA. With my trusty 20-20 hindsight, I can see that he's taking a few cues from the John McCain playbook, who was similarly left for dead in the summer of 2007. Gingrich is a lot of things, stupid isn't one of them. Dude's got an earned doctorate in history. He wasn't quite good enough to earn tenure, which is why he entered politics, but he's no dullard. He's a thoroughly bad man, but not a dumb one. And he's cresting at just about the perfect time. A win or place in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, plus a win in South Carolina, sets him up nicely for February and March.

John Huntsman, 5.8%: This is about where he started back in March. He's been lower, and he's been higher, but his campaign really hasn't gotten a whole lot of traction. But I'm convinced that he's really positioning himself for 2016. Oh, he'd take the 2012 nomination if it came his way. But look at what he's saying. He's positioning himself as the man who was right, when the rest of the candidates had gone stone barking mad. Look for him to check out fairly early, and resurface sometime in 2014.

Ron Paul, 4.5%: Ron Paul, on the other hand, will give up the race when they strip it from his cold, dead hands. He'll tell you that he wants to be President. And he's probably sincere in that. But, part of the point is that the campaign trail is a bully pulpit for issues near and dear to his heart. And that's fine. I'll drink a toast to his health. I don't agree with him on most things, but society needs its professional heretics.

Rick Perry, 2.3%: Oh, dear. The voting age has been 18 since I started elementary school. He's had plenty of time to learn that little fact. But, evidently, not enough time. If the governorship of Texas were a real job, I'd be concerned. But it's not, so we're OK. Consider Governor Perry to be the comedy relief for this campaign season.

Michelle Bachmann, 1.4%: Bachmann is up about half a point from mid-October. I still think she might get a bit of a spike out of a strong showing in Iowa, which is still a non-trivial possibility. But no one outside of Iowa will vote for someone with Marty Feldman eyes. So, she'll probably punch out before March.

Herman Cain, 0.6%: By the time you read this, he will probably have withdrawn. I was sure that his candidacy would come unglued when the campaign swung into the South. I had no idea it would come unglued because of his ... vigorous extracirricular activities. Seems like there's one every year, doesn't it? And it's an equal-opportunity failing, too; it was Edwards last time around. Take a note, gentlemen: there are problems you will never have, if you stay faithful.

And the winner is... By party, the Democrats are ahead 50.9% to 46.5%. By individual, Barack Obama leads the pack at 50.8%. Two factors weigh somewhat in his favor. One, unemployment is on the way down. It's still not good, but it's below 9% for the first time in a long while. Going into the summer, the things to look for are unemployment rate, gas prices, and the general tenor of the foreign situation. While they don't look great, they're trending OK so far. Plus, Intrade is showing a 30% probability that some damn fool like Trump or Palin will mount a third-party bid. This probability goes up if Romney ends up with the Republican nomination.

As I've said before, I'd still put a couple of bucks on Obama/Biden for the win. The odds are tightening up, but if you can find any takers, go for it.

The primary season starts in earnest on January 3, 2012. Vote early, and vote often!

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Future Is ...

"The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed." -- William Gibson

I've said before that predictions aren't something I ought to do very often, because I normally don't do them very well. And when we're talking about things like who's going to win an upcoming election, or which players will do well this season, that's a good rule of thumb. But today, I'm going to talk about technological trends. The future holds both wonders and horrors, and most of both are already with us in some form or another. Specifically, I'm going to be talking about the implications of a piece of modern technology that many of us already carry with us on a daily basis: smart phones.

This is part of what Gibson was talking about: the future is already here, it's just not uniformly distributed. The modern cellular telephone is still called a telephone, when in reality it's a palm-sized computer that has a telephone function. It can also send and receive text messages, e-mail, and function as a web browser. It can hold a small library of books, movies, and music. And it can function as a calculator, stopwatch, camera for both still and moving images. And a map. Never forget the map. We are raising a generation that has no clear idea of what it means to be involuntarily lost. In their mental universe, we've always been able to reach up into space and pull down our exact location.

However, that's just a drop in the bucket. The bottleneck, the thing that keeps these devices from being more pervasive than they already are, is the interface. There's a limit to what can be done with a few square inches of screen space.

We are about to transcend those limits. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are designing an optical display that can fit within a contact lens. This means that future smartphones will be able to paint their displays directly upon your field of vision. The implications of this are immense.

You've heard of "virtual reality." This isn't it. This is something I've heard called "augmented reality." It's your world, with more information. That's both a good thing, and a bad thing. First, the good.

Right off, let's take a look at that turn-by-turn navigation feature that you hardly ever use while you're driving. Augmented Reality makes this far more useful. Instead of a tiny map that you cannot use safely while driving, you get a green line pasted on your field of view, telling you in no uncertain terms where you need to turn in order to get where it is you want to go. Merely asking, "How do I get home from here?" results in a path popping out in front of you, leading the way. And since you'll probably be able to use your fingers as a pointer, you can frame questions about anything you can point at. Asking "What is that?" can tell you anything from what species of bird that is, to what kind of airplane, to where that specific flight came from and where it's going. (Most UFO sightings will be disposed of within seconds.) You'll be able to see weather alerts, if you want to. It's already just about true that any of us with an internet connection can find the answer to just about any question whose answer is known, in the future that answer is available by voice query, and can be immediately displayed in front of your eyes, anytime, day or night.

But, it's not without disadvantages.

A horrifying new dimension of message spam opens up, when a hacker can hijack your visual display to force you to see anything they want you to see. Going by the contents of my spam bucket, most of this will be advertising for products you shouldn't mention in a family publication. Some of it will consist of more innocuous advertisements, say, a blurb about coffee when you walk past a Starbuck's. Others will be pranks played on you by ... friends. And we all have at least one friend like that, with a wildly inappropriate sense of humor. Worst of all, closing your eyes may not even block it out, depending on exactly how these things work. Personal data security will be of paramount importance, unless you like the idea of being bombarded with horrifying images on a fairly constant basis.

Further, an entirely new etiquette will have to be developed to account for this. We're already heading down that road, establishing when it is and isn't appropriate to use cell phones. However, things change when you no longer have to be looking at the device to interact with it. The guy who looks like he's politely paying attention may be doing nothing of the sort. He might be watching Casablanca. He might be playing Call of Duty. Unless you can tap the data stream, you have no way of knowing. I have no idea how we'll sort that out. But we'll have to figure it out once we get there.

And we will get there. The advantages so far outweigh the drawbacks that we won't be able to avoid it. There are parts I'm really looking forward to, and parts that I'm dreading, but on the whole it's a huge opportunity. Opportunity for what, we just don't know yet.

But it'll be fun to find out.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLIX

On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students (possibly with the backing of the revolutionary government, possibly not) took over the United States Embassy in Tehran. The Americans were held hostage for 444 days, until January 20, 1981. During their captivity, there were at least two plans made for a rescue. One is well known, the other less so.

The one that just about everyone's heard of is Operation Eagle Claw. Eagle Claw was a complex operation, involving eight RH-53 helicopters and four C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, three of which were carrying fuel for the return trip. It required close cooperation between elements from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. It also required a bit of luck with weather. The close cooperation worked tolerably well enough. The weather ... didn't. Eagle Claw ended in disaster when one of the helicopters collided with one of the tankers while they were preparing to abort the mission anyway, because they didn't have enough mechanically-fit helicopters to complete the mission.

But that wasn't the end of the matter. They had one more trick up their sleeve. One of the problems with Operation Eagle Claw was that it relied on too much coordination. They decided to simplify matters by using only one aircraft, staging the mission out of the continental United States, using multiple in-air re-fuelings on the way to Iran, and meeting up with a nearby aircraft carrier. The aircraft they chose was a C-130 Hercules, and they would land inside a soccer stadium close by the American Embassy.

"Now hold on a second," I hear you saying. "You can't actually do that." Well, not with a stock C-130, you can't. But this one? It's been modified. Ladies and gentlemen, behold Operation Credible Sport:

Yes, someone looked at a C-130 airframe and said, "You know what this thing needs? Rockets. A whole bunch of rockets." One set of rockets to soak up the high rate of descent. Another set of rockets to slow the beast down once you're on the deck. And a third set of rockets, to kick your butt back up skyward when it's time to leave. Oh yeah, this would have gotten the job done.

Except that, on the last test flight, some damn fool hit the switches out of sequence. Believe it or not, everyone made it out of there. With that much explodium on board, you'd better believe they had a fire truck close by.

But for that, the hostages might have been home by early November. As it was, on November 2, the Iranian parliament accepted an Algerian mediation plan, and a few days after that, Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid. The plan was shelved after that.

And by the way: landing a C-130 on a carrier was the least crazy part of this plan. It had been done before, in 1963.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XVIII: Foreign Affairs


In the modern era, we're accustomed to fast-moving, quick-paced conflicts. The interval between the initial invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad in 2003 could be measured in weeks. The interval between the beginnings of unrest in Libya and the death of Quaddafi could be measured in only months. This, you have to understand, is a fairly new development, especially in American military history. Specifically, it was a response to what happened in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. One of our take-aways from that conflict is that we wouldn't have time to gear up for any future conflict ... and the new watch-words became "come as you are" and "win the first fight." We appear to have more or less learned the lesson.

But in 1861, we were still over a century away from that revelation. The fall of 1861 moved very, very slowly. This was a deliberate pause on both sides. One of the things clear to everyone after the Battle of Bull Run was that no one was really ready for any of this. Everyone needed time to raise, equip, and train fresh troops. A whole lot of fresh troops.

The Union wasn't having a tremendously difficult time doing any of this. To raise and outfit an army, you need a supply of manpower, ready cash to buy weapons and ammunition, more ready cash to expend ammunition in training, and skilled men to lead and direct the training of your new troops. The Union ran down its list: Manpower? Check. Cash? Check. More cash? Check. Skilled men? Well, sort of. But still check.

The Union was beginning to shake out its pre-War old guard. Some of the retirements, if somewhat unfair, were also necessary. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Army's commanding general, was an old man, and not in the best of health to begin with. If he were younger and more vigorous, he'd probably be the man for the job; but young and vigorous he most assuredly was not. His retirement was expected, and surprised no one. As his replacement, Lincoln selected the brightest of his rising stars: General George McClellan. His earlier success was one of the few bright spots for the Union so far. And if there's anything a former railroad engineer knew, it was organization. And it does have to be said: that fall and that winter, General McClellan molded the broken, dispirited soldiers that slouched around Washington into a tight, disciplined unit: the Army of the Potomac. And he strengthened the defenses surrounding Washington to the point that the Federal capital was now the most heavily-fortified city on Earth. Whatever else you may have to say about General McClellan, you must give him credit for laying the groundwork and forging the tools. He was, in many ways, a perfectly splendid officer.

Down South, a similar story was playing out. The Confederates had the same four needs for army-building. And they ran down the same checklist: Manpower? Check ... for now. Cash? Check, with the same proviso. More cash? Well, we may have to get back to you on that one. Skilled men? Oh yes, plenty! But, without arms and ammunition, what can they do?

The Union blockade was beginning to pinch the Confederacy's coffers. They had virtually no native industry of their own. They knew this going in. Their big plan all along was to gain enough support abroad, from foreign merchants who needed their cotton, so that they could use a powerful foreign fleet to force the Union blockade aside. At which point, they could buy all the arms they needed from the English and French. But ... that consummation was still a long, long way from being concluded.

England, you see, wasn't exactly eager to leap into a military alliance with the Confederacy.

Oh, there's one reason why they might. It'd poke a sharp stick in the Yankees' eyes, and no mistake. London might well be up for that. But, there were two issues lurking in the background that cloud those waters. First, as we said before, war with the Union would mean war with the US Navy. It's a war England would probably win, but it would cost. England wasn't eager to pay that cost. And secondly, the Confederacy was explicitly a slave power. There was an organization in London, the Anti-Slavery Society, headed by a German immigrant named Albert. Ordinarily that would have meant little. But, since Albert's wife was Victoria, by Grace of God Queen of England, Scotland, and all the rest; it mattered a great deal indeed. What the Sovereign wants, the Sovereign tends to get; and Prime Minister Palmerston was going to have to have an outstanding reason if he was going to go before her and ask her to support a slave-holding Power.

The Union damn near gave it to him.

William Yancey, the current Confederate representative in London, was sick and unable to fulfill his duties. So, President Davis had to appoint a couple of replacements: John Slidell of Louisiana and James Mason of Georgia. Their job was to get as much support, official and unofficial, as they possibly could. A direct ship to England couldn't be had, so they made their way out to where they could catch a ship for England. Originally, they made for the Bahamas, but they'd missed an England-bound ship by mere days. Then they heard that an English mail ship would be leaving Cuba soon. So, they sailed for Cuba, and got a ride on the RMS Trent. At that point, they thought they were safely England-bound.

It's more or less at this point that the USS San Jacinto intervenes, and stops the Trent for a cargo inspection. And by "cargo", I mean Messrs. Mason and Slidell, since the captain of the San Jacinto had heard while he was laid up in Cuba following an Atlantic patrol that two Confederate ministers were England-bound on the Trent. (Did anyone bother keeping secrets back then?)

Now, strictly speaking, Captain Wilkes had no legal right to stop the Trent. This seizure was a violation of international law. But, Captain Wilkes took it upon himself to detain the Trent and its passengers, so as to disrupt the Confederacy's diplomatic efforts. It apparently escaped Captain Wilkes' calculations that such an action might well enrage England, and provoke them to enter the War on the Confederacy's side.

This mess would take several months to unwind, over the winter of 1861-1862. Several times, things looked like they might flare up into open war. But, owing to skillful diplomacy by President Lincoln and his ambassador in London, Charles F. Adams, no such war took place. England did embark on a naval construction program. They did strengthen their garrison in Canada. But, after an admission of wrongdoing that wasn't really an admission, Mason and Slidell were released from custody and allowed to board a Royal Navy ship in Provincetown, Massachusetts. So, Captain Wilkes merely delayed the two men for six months or so.

In the end, very little changed. The Confederacy wasn't going to get the recognition it wanted, not yet anyway. But, they did win one key concession from the British: recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent party. While this meant nothing as far as Her Majesty's Government was concerned, it meant that Confederate ships could use British ports to re-provision, and they could contract with private suppliers for arms and munitions.

Half a loaf was better than none. The Confederacy would have as much arms as it could buy and smuggle through the Union blockade. That would allow them to field an army. For how long, no one knew yet. President Davis hoped it would be long enough.

Friday, November 04, 2011

It's About Time

A while back, a group of physicists at CERN reported a remarkable result: they had observed a beam of neutrinos traveling faster than light. Which, near as we can tell, ought to be impossible. They are currently attempting to repeat their experiment to verify their results, and are also looking into possible measurement errors.

One recent rebuttal was interesting. They claim that, if they really were moving faster than light, they ought to have shed energy in the form of specific particles, which the CERN experiment did not detect.

Another theory holds that something that's moving faster than light is also moving backwards in time. Leading to the physicists' joke: "We don't serve faster-than-light neutrinos here," said the barman. A neutrino walks into the bar. I'm not sure I buy the theory, but then again, I pretty much hate time travel in all its forms.

Another competing theory caught my attention: the neutrinos only seemed to be traveling faster than light, because the laboratory used GPS satellites as a time reference. Since the satellites were also moving with respect to the experiment, that motion also has to be accounted for, leading to a margin of error that almost exactly covers the gap.

"Now, wait one second," I can hear you saying. "GPS satellites are used to find where you are. What do clocks have to do with it?" Everything, my friend. Everything. The clock is by far the most important thing a GPS satellite carries. It's the key to the whole process.

You see, one of the things we think we know about the Universe is that light always moves at the same speed. We're fairly sure about that. At least, we haven't been able to design an experiment to disprove that fact. So, if you have two clocks, and Clock A broadcasts a time signal to Clock B, then the difference between Clock A's time at arrival and the received time from Clock B tells you the instantaneous distance between the two clocks. With me so far?

Now, each of the GPS satellites is continually broadcasting two pieces of information: an identifier, and a time signal. The identifier tells you which satellite it is, and that information plus your current time should tell you where that satellite ought to be. So, once your GPS receiver gets a signal from Satellite A, it compares the broadcast time with the current system time, and computes a distance. Using that distance, and the satellite's position, it figuratively draws a circle on the globe. You're somewhere on that circle.

That's not enough. So, it looks for a second signal. If it can find Satellite B, it compares Satellite B's broadcast time with the current system time, converts that into a distance, and draws another circle on the globe. Now, those two circles intersect in at most two places. So, you're at one, or the other. You still don't know which.

Well, that doesn't really work, either. So, you need a third signal. Now, it looks for Satellite C, and does the same thing. It compares times, finds a distance, draws a third circle ... and now, if the Earth were a perfect sphere, all three circles would meet in harmony in one and only one place. But the Earth isn't a perfect sphere. It's not a perfect anything. It's awfully damned lumpy. So...

So it looks for a fourth signal. Once it finds Satellite D, it goes through the same process. And basically, it finds the point where all four circles more or less meet up. And hey presto, you know where you're at. And, if you have a relatively new unit, it'll also tell you that you need to take the next exit to get to your Aunt Sally's house. Oh, and you need to pick up a loaf of bread and some eggs while you're at it.

But, mad scientists being the innovative chaps that they are, they found a new and interesting "off-label" use for GPS technology. Why worry about synchronizing your clocks if the U.S. Department of Defense has already gone to the trouble of synchronizing one for you? Well, now we think we know a good reason: because it's whizzing around the planet at 17,500 miles per hour, that's why. And if you don't take that into account, weird things might happen.

Although the jury's still out. Weird things might still be happening. We won't know until the re-test is over. Measurements talk, and we just don't have enough of 'em yet.

Still, we should know something in six months or so. Keep your fingers crossed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What Might Have Been, Part III

Forty years ago, when they were drawing up the plans for the Space Transportation System, the original plans called for a flight rate of about fifty times per year. About the most we ever managed on a consistent basis was six. Something doesn't quite add up, here. What went wrong?

Well, one thing that went wrong is that there was never enough traffic to justify a fifty-per-year sortie rate. And another thing that went wrong is that it takes about three to four months to turn an orbiter around for re-flight. Early turn-around estimates were wildly optimistic. Now, we could have achieved a fifty-per-year sortie rate. But we would have needed more orbiters. With each orbiter flying at most four times per year, you need at least fifteen orbiters to keep the flight rate up.

The additional expense of those orbiters probably isn't as much as you're thinking. A large part of a Shuttle's price tag came from the fact that we had to amortize the entire RDT&E budget over five units. Six, if you count Enterprise. Similarly, part of the reason that a Bugatti Veyron cost $2 million and a Toyota Camry costs $20 thousand is that only 200 Bugatti Veryons were ever built, and there are about 5 million Camrys out there. Once you build the factory and tooling, the marginal cost of each additional unit isn't astronomical; and if you build enough of them, you get better at it, and the efficiency begins to show in the unit cost.

Which still begs the question: you don't need such a high sortie rate, unless you're moving a lot of cargo upstairs. Which is what went wrong with my teaser from back in May. Without such cargo volume, why pursue the matter any further?

For a couple of reasons. First, it keeps my mind occupied when I'm on the treadmill. And second, counterfactual scenarios sometimes provide a glimpse into why things in the real world turned out the way they did. So, without further ado, we're going to board the bus for Crazytown. Don't worry, we've got return tickets.

First, we go back to the year 1969. The lynchpin of the Soviet answer to Project Apollo was Sergei Korolev's giant N-1 rocket. It was about as big, about as powerful, could lift about as much stuff into space ... and it had 30 engines in its first stage. As I've mentioned before, Korolev had spent the last ten or fifteen years in a pissing match with Chelomei and also with Glushko, who was the engine expert. Korolev had to use less powerful engines, which meant that he had to use a lot of them. The first flight of the N-1 was in February of 1969, and by "flight" I mean "explosion". Getting thirty engines to play nicely together is not exactly an easy feat.

Between 1969 and 1972, three more test flights took place. The N-1 program was not officially cancelled until 1974. The Soviet Union never did land a man on the moon, but it wasn't for lack of effort. At cancellation, two N-1 rockets were still ready for test flights.

Which brings up a very interesting question, and the springboard for our counterfactual exercise: Why, five years after they'd already lost the Moon Race, were they still working on a Moon rocket?

The most likely answer is simply inertia. Soviet programs tended not to be cancelled until someone with authority looked at it and said, "Why are we still doing this?" And sometimes not even then. Voskhod 3, for instance was never officially cancelled. The spacecraft stayed in a shed, kept ready, even as Soyuz 1 was being prepared for flight.

The more entertaining answer is that the Soviets were planning a propaganda coup, by the establishment of a permanent Lunar base. There were some plans drawn up to this effect, which is another reason why the plug wasn't pulled right away when Apollo 11 was successful. Part of the reason that the project was cancelled in 1974 is that none of the tests had been successful. But the truth is, each one got a little bit closer. The fifth test flight might well have done the trick, had there ever been one.

Now, in this scenario, it's 1976. Two successful test flights prove the design, and more rockets are built. While America celebrates its Bicentennial, giant Soviet rockets are delivering payloads to a rapidly-growing Soviet base on the Moon.

What I'm trying to sell here is a scenario where Reagan, as part of his defense build -up, buys a whole bunch of Shuttles, and plays catch-up in a Moonbase race. The problem with this scenario is that it requires everyone to go crazy, in the same way, all at once.

And, at the end of the day, I just can't buy it. No part of this is plausible.

The Soviet Union cancelled the N-1 in 1974 because at that point, it was a white elephant with no useful purpose. Even if it worked, it wasn't going to do anything especially useful for them. They had decided to focus on a long-duration spaceflight program, and score their propaganda points that way. It worked, after a fashion. To this day, all of the duration records are held by Russians, except only longest flight by a woman. The point is, they had found a way to make their case at an acceptable cost in time and materials.

And for us, as I've said several times, we've proven by trial and error that the American public is willing to spend about 0.5% to 1.0% of the Federal budget on NASA, to include all of its aeronautical research programs. There was never a political case to be made for a giant program involving a moonbase in the 1980s or 1990s. Which meant that the "design" sortie rate for the Shuttle was a moot point. Part of the reason it only flew four to six times a year is that there was only enough traffic to keep it busy four to six times a year. And even so, look at the other side of the record books: the people with six or seven missions to their credit? Only two Russians on that list. The Shuttle put more human beings into orbit than any other spacecraft. That's not an achievement to sneeze at.

As we turn the page on this fine project, and as we look back at the other things we might have done in its stead, I have to say that we probably did about as well as we could have. We lost fourteen fine people. But we gained an immeasurable amount of knowledge. Only time will tell if that was a good trade. All I know is, the people who made that sacrifice believed so.

I hope -- and I also believe -- they were right.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLVIII

When Space-X recently announced their proposed Falcon Heavy rocket, one of the selling points they touted was extreme engine-out reliability. This comes from the fact that, at liftoff, the three core stages have 27 Merlin rocket engines between them. This got me to thinking. Specifically, it got me to thinking of an earlier rocket, that also had a fair number of first-stage engines.

The Soviet entry into the Moon Race, their equivalent of the Saturn V, was the N-1. The N-1 was a giant beast of a rocket, with thirty engines. I had always called that first stage a plumbers' nightmare, because of the complicated piping that I associated with so many engines firing simultaneously. It occurs that, perhaps, I was being unfair to Mr. Korolev.

And another curious thing: the last test flight of the Soviet Moon rocket was in 1974. Five years after the first American landing, and nearly two years after the last. If they'd given up on going to the Moon, then what in the world were they doing still trying to perfect a rocket for doing just that?

Therein, perhaps, lay a curious tale. In history as it actually happened, all four N-1 test flights ended more or less like this:

But what if they hadn't? What if they'd gotten all the kinks worked out? From everything I've read, they came close. One more test might have done the trick.

Maybe not next time, but soon, I'll take up the question of what might have happened next.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Election 2012 Preview: Handicapping the Primaries, Part III

Well, as I said before, prognostication is probably something I shouldn't do. My record is rather less than perfect. Still, it's fun, so I'm going to have another shot at it. Quite a lot has happened, and a few people have dropped out since the last time we looked at the race. It's still a long way to the conventions, but we've got a pretty good idea of who won't be in the running.

Democratic Party: Again, this entry is for completeness' sake only. Ralph Nader's pot-stirring notwithstanding, incumbent Presidents who still want the job always win re-nomination. Incumbency is a powerful advantage. You'd have to be a fool to throw that aside. Granted, the Democrats almost did in 1980, but it's not 1980. For the same reason, we won't see any movement on the VP side of the ticket, either. The last President who was re-elected after switching running mates was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 ... and let's be honest here, Roosevelt could have had a burlesque dancer for a running mate, and he still would have won. That was a special case. These days, such a shift would be a huge display of weakness. So, no change here, it's Obama/Biden once again for Team Blue, unless one or both of them gets run over by a combine harvester in the meantime.

Republican Party: Oh dear, where do I begin? Let's just do this by the numbers (according to Intrade, current as of Friday afternoon):

Mitt Romney, 67%: He's managing a difficult dance extraordinarily well. As I said earlier, one of the biggest problems that he faces is that Obamacare is Romneycare with the serial numbers filed off, and everyone knows this. He had to find a way to credibly run against something he basically invented ... and so far, he's actually doing exactly that. An amazing feat, really. The basic thing to understand about the Romney campaign at this point is that he's not playing to win so much as he's playing to not lose. His selling points are competence and business acumen. Those are just about his only cards, and so far, he's playing them very well. He doesn't lead many polls, though, because his other problem may well be his Achilles' heel. He's a Mormon, stumping before a heavily evangelical Christian electorate. That's going to cost him. Will it cost him enough to turf him from the campaign again? Maybe, but only maybe. He still out-polls all other potential Republican contenders against President Obama. Electability may win out over religious prejudice.

Rick Perry, 11%: I've listened to Rick Perry several times in GOP Gubernatorial Debates here in Texas, and I have to ask: Who is this man, and what has he done with the real Rick Perry? Oh, I never expected him to be a debating all-star. But I never expected him to crater this horribly. Nevertheless, he'll make a strong run this coming Spring, once the campaign heads down South. This is going to be a two-way race, between Mitt Romney and "not Mitt Romney", whoever the hell that ends up being. Rick Perry still has a fighting chance to be "not Mitt Romney". But he's going to have to fight off several contenders for that slot, including Mitt Romney. (This is going to be a really weird year.)

Herman Cain, 9%: Fitting, since his signature tax plan is called "9-9-9". John Huntsman was right about that, by the way; it does sound like a pizza price. (And a pretty good one, at that.) Herman Cain leads the polls at the moment in the contentious race for "not Mitt Romney", but he's going to peak and stall pretty soon. He's ... how do I say this without sounding crass? Let's just say that his campaign will do a Titanic once the campaign goes down South. You can guess the reason.

And no one else is above 5%. This includes Huntsman and Gingrich (2%), Michelle Bachmann (1%), and Sarah Palin (under 1%). Sarah Palin has bailed out of the running for the Republican nomination, but this may not be the last we've seen of her this year. The interesting thing about the way Intrade works is that her chances will never drop to zero, even though she's dropped out. There are a number of poor slobs who bought Palin shares when they were at 7%, and didn't have to good sense to sell while the selling was good. They're stuck.

I still think Bachmann would be a good, if risky buy. She's liable to do quite well in Iowa, maybe even pulling a win. In that case, I'd expect a spike, and if you bought in at 1%, you could do quite well. But, as I say, it's risky. Bachmann may well have peaked already. She's been on a slump since debate season started. Still, if she were to climb back towards double digits, a buck or two could get you a night at the movies. (I think. I'm still not sure any real money changes hands, here.)

Palin is an interesting case. I see a scenario where she could be back in the running. Let's say that Romney does win the nomination. Let's further say that the Tea Party finds that unacceptable, and revolts. Who would be the standard-bearer for a third-party challenge? I don't see Rick Perry doing that. I don't see John Huntsman doing that. Both of them could reload for the 2016 GOP nomination, unless they burn their bridges with a third-party run. But Palin, who's already burnt her fair share of bridges, would certainly be game.

In any case, the battle for the Republican nomination will be a two-way scrum between Romney and Perry, barring a major breakout by another candidate. And the field is essentially fixed, there will be no new candidacies at this point. Either one could win. Romney's long-term position looks pretty good, and he's frankly the strongest candidate the Republicans could get out of this field. If they're smart, he's the one they'll run.

If they're not smart, or if there's a Tea Party revolt and a third-party run, we might well see the curious sight of a President, holding a bag full of 9% unemployment and lousy economy, winning re-election anyway because the opposition is either divided or too horrifying to contemplate.

I'd say stranger things have happened, except that I'm not sure that's true. As I said, this is going to be a really weird election year.

Saturday, October 01, 2011


My wife and I recently went to see the film Moneyball. I'm not a huge fan of baseball, but I had heard about the concept that the Oakland A's used to build a very good team on a shoestring budget. It was a very good film. I say that not because it sparked a latent interest in baseball, but because it got me to thinking about a few other things. To wit: what, precisely, will the United States do with its manned spaceflight program now that the Shuttles are going off to various museums and exhibits around the country?

I know, last time we talked about this, I promised a peek into a scenario where they might actually have reached the Shuttle's original advertised sortie rate of one flight per week. I got to thinking about it, though, and that requires a detour into Crazytown that I'm not quite ready for yet. I'll get around to that sooner rather than later, just not today.

So, we're stuck with the basic question of what to do next. And then, on the way home from the theater, it struck me. The problem all along is that we've been trying to field a New York Yankees program on an Oakland Athletics budget. And that's worked out about as well as anyone ought to expect it to. The main problem is that, ever since 1968, the long-range plans have all assumed massive budget increases that just won't happen.

It's time for a new paradigm. Taking a cue from Moneyball, I'm going to identify a couple of over-valued and under-valued "players" whose status needs to be re-evaluated. In no particular order:

(1) Heavy Lift: The question has to be asked -- do we really need a dedicated heavy lift booster? Do we need to re-create a Saturn V class rocket? I used to think so, but I've changed my mind. Dedicated heavy lift rockets are problematic at best from an economic point of view. They only make sense if you have a lot of heavy payloads going up on a fairly consistent schedule. If you only use them once or twice a year, the unit cost becomes hideous. You build and use at most ten or twenty in a decade, which means that you have to spread the cost of the factory and tooling over at most ten or twenty flights. This alone massively inflates the cost of a project that uses heavy lift. Which, in turn, makes the up-front "sticker shock" so harsh that the project never climbs up out of the planning stage. The Constellation program is only the most recent example of this. So, in our new paradigm, screw heavy lift. We're going to figure out a way to get by without it. And, with a few key enabling technologies, we can do just that.

(2) Closed-Loop Life Support: Part of the rationale for heavy lift is that interplanetary manned spacecraft need to be huge. If you have to carry all of your consumables (food, air, water) as cargo, you have to have about 30 kilograms of supplies for each crew, each day. That's just about a ton per crew per month. A minimum-energy trajectory to Mars takes nine months, and it can take as long as a year for the return launch window to open. So, at thirty months duration, we're talking 30 tons of food, water, and oxygen for each crew member. That's 120 tons for a crew of four. The largest part of that figure is water. If you can figure out how to recycle the water, you can cut that figure down drastically. Freeze-dried food and oxygen come to a little more than 1 kilogram per day. You would need a week or two of reserve water supply, but you could cut 120 tons down to less than ten. Savings like this cascade through the entire system.

(3) High-Efficiency Propulsion: Another part of the rationale for heavy lift is the fact that interplanetary spacecraft need so much fuel, not just for Earth escape, but for returning to Earth later on. Obviously, if you have more fuel-efficient engines, you don't have to haul as much fuel along with you. Taken together, these last two items make the spacecraft design much lighter. And since weight lifted into orbit is a big part of your cost, this makes the program as a whole more affordable.

(4) In-Space Refueling: That's all well and good, of course, but if you still have to lift the fully-fueled spacecraft into orbit all at once, you still need a heavy lift booster. That's where our last enabling technology comes in. If you develop the techniques for transferring fuel in orbit, you don't have to lift the whole thing all at once. You can lift the crew cabin first, then the fuel tanks, then the engines, then the fuel. And, once the ship returns from its first flight, it can be refurbished, refueled, and used again.

(5) Reusable Launch Vehicles: That's all nice, but we still have the problem of being able to get into low Earth orbit economically. Re-use is fairly important, if you want to get costs down. Operational simplicity is also important, of course, but you really want to be able to use expensively-machined components like engines more than once before dunking them into the ocean. Fortunately, we've run into a spot of luck on this score:

It's not completely reusable. But, if it works, enough components can be reused to bring operating costs down substantially. Also, the Falcon 9 core is the key ingredient for:

(Honest, I don't work for these guys. I just like their work.)

Bearing all of this in mind, where do I think we should go from here? Mainly, I think it's not really NASA's job to build a new rocket. Rockets, we've got. Good ones. What we need is for them to work on (2) through (4) above. If you've been paying attention, this is the "flexible path" option outlined in last year's Augustine Committee report. These goals ought to be achievable on a fairly modest budget. With those three things in hand, they can leverage private industry's work, and carry off an awesome program of exploration for a very reasonable price. And isn't that what we're paying them for?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moving Violations

There's an old physics joke: 186,000 mi/s. It's not just a good idea. It's the law.

If this week's announced results prove out, they may just have to issue speeding citations to the staff at CERN, in Switzerland. To summarize, a neutrino experiment appeared to result in speeds 20 parts per million above the speed of light in a vacuum.

That ... is damn weird. It calls into question some fairly fundamental assumptions we've made about how we think the Universe works. By fairly fundamental, I mean some of them go back a couple of hundred years. Allow me to explain.

There's a fairly simple thought experiment we can run through to demonstrate why we think nothing can go faster than light. It relies on just three basic assumptions, that I will list below:

1) There is no universally-preferred frame of reference. A slightly less fancy way to put that is that there's no such thing as absolute motion. Motion only makes sense if you can measure it relative to something else. A corollary to this is that, if you're out in the middle of nowhere and have few or no reference points, you can't tell the difference between sitting still and moving at a uniform speed in a straight line. This is called Galilean invariance.

2) Light moves at the same speed in all inertial frames of reference. Another way of saying that is that light always moves at the same speed in a given medium, no matter where or how you measure it. This is one of the cornerstones of the Special Theory of Relativity.

3) All particles that have zero rest mass, like photons, are constrained to move at the speed of light, and only at the speed of light. They cannot accelerate or decelerate, but they can gain or lose energy in frequency.

Now, bearing those three assumptions in mind, let's imagine two spaceships out in intergalactic space. They're far enough away from any other points of reference that they can't really measure their motion all that well against them, so their only points of reference are each other. Which means, they have no real way of telling if they're at rest, or moving. For all they know, they're sitting still while the other ship zips past them. Now, let's also assume that one of the ship is charged up with several million volts, so that when they pass close enough, a spark jumps between the two ships. We won't say anything about how fast they're moving relative to one another. The speed can be arbitrarily high.

From the first ship, what you see is that you're sitting still, then this other ship zips by, and then FLASH! You're at the center of an expanding shell of photons. The situation looks the same from the other ship -- you're sitting still, zoom, FLASH! You're also at the center of an expanding shell of photons.

Again, the speeds of the ships haven't been specified. It doesn't matter how fast they think they're moving, because no matter which way you slice it, a wave-front of photons is racing out ahead of you. The only logical conclusion is that both ships must be moving slower than the speed of light.

That's all well and good. But now we have, at least potentially, a very sticky problem.

If this recent experiment is correct, if the Swiss scientists haven't made any errors, then one or more of the three basic assumptions above must be wrong.

The implications of this...

On one hand, it staggers the mind. Such fundamental notions about the Universe just don't fall every day. But on the other hand, this only involves such high energies that most of us will never see any kind of difference. And on the other other hand, I'm really only certain about three things anyway[1], so it won't bother me too much if the Swiss scientists are right or wrong. And even if they're right, it'll take quite some time for them to figure out exactly which of the above assumptions are wrong, and in what way. It'll be interesting to watch the commotion no matter how it turns out.

Still. That's going to be one hell of a speeding ticket, and I'm glad I don't have to pay.

[1] Conservation of Mass, Conservation of Momentum, and Conservation of Energy. As far as I'm concerned, everything else is open for speculation.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years.

The relentless fury of the August sun has retreated. I believe I've said elsewhere that Autumn in Texas is usually a time when God apologizes for leaving the oven on Broil for a few months, and the apology takes the form of cool mornings and warm sunshine. Ten years ago today, it was almost exactly the same kind of morning. But with a difference.

That Tuesday morning began for me like any other: I was at my job, wrestling with a pile of code that was stubbornly refusing to do what it was supposed to be doing. The company I was working for had a piece of the FAA's Free Flight Phase 1 project. The specific piece I was working on was the adaptation of pFAST (Passive Final Approach Spacing Tool) to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. It was hard sledding, but that's a tale for another day. After a couple of hours, I'd reached an impasse, and decided to check the news as a bit of a break.

That was as much productive work as I, or anyone else in my office, got done that day.

The news that an airplane had collided with one of the towers didn't really register yet. I thought it was an accident. Something like that had happened once before, back in the '40s, when a B-17 hit the Empire State Building. How something like that happened with modern navigation equipment, though, was a mystery. Then, the second airplane hit, and all doubt was gone.

Once could have been an accident. Twice? No, twice meant it was deliberate action. And what's more, I knew who was responsible. I'd been following the story for years. I remembered the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Khobar Towers. I remembered his 1998 fatwa against Americans, and the attack against the USS Cole. This was his way of finishing the job. A cold fury gripped my heart. They must be made to pay. And I was not alone in that sentiment.

Five years ago, the memory still stung with the ache of unfinished business.

Today, the memory still stings. But at least there is some closure, some completion.

The architect of those attacks is in custody and will never again be a free man, and the man who gave the order is part of the marine food chain. Both lived long enough to see their ideology utterly discredited. The crowds that mobbed Tahrir Square, the citizen-soldiers who liberated Libya inch by inch, they had no use at all for the theocratic state Osama bin Laden championed. The throngs who overthrew one-time strongmen from the Atlantic coast to the Arabian peninsula weren't chanting his name, or that of his movement. Rather, they wanted democracy and self-determination. They had weighed his ideas in the balance, and found them wanting. Bin Laden did not die in glory, but in defeat and despair.

And for our part? On this anniversary, when we look back and reflect on the very real pain and loss of that day, we can look forward as well. When we think of those who lost lives and loved ones that day, we can take solace in the fact that they have been avenged. When we think of the lives and loved ones lost in the wars, we can take comfort in the fact that they did not die totally in vain. From the Maghreb to the Hindu Kush, people have a chance at freedom and self-determination that they have not had in many years, if ever. Some of those stories will end in success. Some will not end so happily. But the ends of those stories will not be written in English, by an American author. Those stories will be written by the people who live them, as is right and proper.

And for our part, our story will also go on. We have our full share of problems. But on the whole, I wouldn't trade them for anyone else's on this Earth.

May God be with you all, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XVII: Man in Motion


Only a year earlier, he was the picture of abject failure. Virtually nothing he had turned his hand to resulted in success. He was the husband of a devoted wife, and the father of adoring children, and exactly that much was right with his world. He was a miserable figure, shuffling to and from the only job he could find, a clerk in his father's store. At thirty-eight years of age, Ulysses Grant had hit rock bottom.

His fortunes hadn't always looked so grim. His father, Jesse Grant, was well-regarded though not spectacularly wealthy. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, he was mistakenly nominated to West Point under the name Ulysses S. Grant. He raised no complaint: he'd secretly dreaded having to go by the initials H.U.G., knowing that would mean no end of ribbing from his classmates. He was an indifferent student, graduating 21st out of 39, with two notable exceptions. He was an outstanding horseman, and he was exceptionally talented in mathematics.

Grant didn't actually want to be a career soldier. Oh, he had no qualms about the job, it's just that what he really wanted was to be a professor of mathematics. And that's what almost happened. He wanted the job, West Point wanted him back as an instructor, but this was 1843, and trouble was brewing down on the border with Mexico. Lieutenant Grant would be a soldier, after all.

As a quartermaster, if he were so inclined, he might have seen no action at all. But that wasn't his style. Twice, he was brevetted for bravery, at Molino del Rey and at Chapultepec. This, despite the fact that he was deeply opposed to the war itself. He thought it terribly unjust, and would later write, "I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day, regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

After the war, Grant remained in the Army. As a result of the Mexican War, the United States had acquired an immense amount of territory, and soldiers would be required to guarantee its safety. Grant's duties were to be as a quartermaster at a succession of forts on the west coast. It was more or less at this point that we'd see a facet of Grant's character that would resurface several times in the future. Grant, in the face of action, was a capable and diligent soldier. Grant, faced with the tedium of garrison duty, did not handle boredom well. It's not known for sure whether or not Grant ever drank on duty, but his commander believed that he had. Grant was given an ultimatum: resign, or face court-martial. He resigned.

For several years, Grant tried to make a go of it as a farmer, on a plot of land his family owned outside of St. Louis, Missouri. But Grant was a poor businessman. After four years, he had to give up farming, and spent a couple of years as a bill collector in St. Louis. This didn't work out, either; and after a string of failed ventures, he was forced to accept a job as a clerk in his father's leather goods store. This is where we find him in late 1860 and early 1861: a broken man, shuffling between his home and his father's store.

His luck began to change in April. After Fort Sumter was attacked, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Rebellion. As it happened, soldiering was something Grant was quite familiar with ... And so it was that Grant helped to recruit a company of volunteers, and accompanied said unit to the state capital at Springfield. This company seemed to be more well-drilled and disciplined than most volunteers, so Governor Richard Yates offered Grant a position to recruit and train new troops. Grant accepted -- this wasn't the field command that he was looking for, but it beat working in his father's store. Besides, if he did a good enough job, perhaps someone would notice.

Someone did notice. Grant's enthusiasm, energy, and efficiency made an impression not only on his soldiers, but on Governor Yates. In June, the Governor promoted Grant to Colonel, and gave him the Twenty-first Illinois volunteer regiment, a particularly unruly regiment of volunteers. Within a few months, they weren't quite so unruly anymore. It's not that Grant was a harsh disciplinarian, or a martinet. He wasn't. But he kept his men busy with drill, attended to their needs diligently, and as is so often the case, his soldiers responded positively to such treatment. This turn-around caught the eye of Major General John Fremont, who'd known Grant by reputation from the Mexican War. He'd been appointed by Lincoln as commander in the West, and Fremont needed someone to take charge of a deteriorating situation in the District of Cairo. Fremont saw Grant as "a man of dogged persistance, and iron will," and tapped him for the post.

What a difference a year makes. From the depths of failure in September 1860, Grant had risen to command of a regiment of volunteers in September 1861. This change of fortunes affected Grant's entire demeanor. He began to walk with a bold, confident step. He was immensely confident of his abilities, but at the same time, kept a fairly solid grasp on the limits of the possible. These two qualities seldom meet in one person.

General Fremont had given Grant orders to venture out and meet the Confederate forces at Belmont. Grant immediately began making the necessary preparations. Soon, he would march out to meet the enemy.

In September 1861, few knew the name Ulysses S. Grant. This was about to change.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLVII

The 1950s were a fine time to be an aeronautical engineer. There was so much new ground to be covered. There were so many new ideas to try. Many of those ideas were pretty weird, and there are plenty of perfectly good reasons we don't try them anymore, but no one knew those reasons ... yet. And there was only one way to find out. Which made that era, from approximately 1940 to 1960, such a rewarding time to work at places like Convair, Lockheed, Bell, or North American.

Some of the ideas to come out of that era shaped the way we still build airplanes to this day. Others, not so much. Some really peculiar aircraft parted company with their shadows in those years. For example, did you hear the one about the supersonic seaplane?

This beautiful craft was a contemporary of Convair's other delta-wing fighters, the F-102 and F-106, adapted to take off and land on the open ocean. The basic problem was this: the Navy wanted a supersonic fighter for fleet defense. But, there were serious doubts about being able to launch and recover supersonic fighters from aircraft carriers. So, Convair came up with the idea of adapting the Delta Dart with skids, so that it could take off and land at sea. The F2Y was a stunningly beautiful aircraft, and to this day is the only seaplane to break the sound barrier. That said, landing a delta-wing aircraft on water without hurting yourself is damn hard. They never built more than the one F2Y prototype.

Now, the Navy's designation F2Y leads to a question. Pre-1962, the Navy system for aircraft designation was first, a letter or letters for the mission; second, a series number; and third, a letter for the manufacturer. The numeral "1" was usually omitted. So, the Grumman F4F Wildcat was the fourth Navy fighter built by the Grumman corporation. And the Convair F2Y would have been the second Navy fighter built by Convair. What was the first, you ask?

Hoo boy ... Here was another solution to the problem of basing aircraft on ships. The Convair XFY was to be a VTOL fighter that could take off and land on any ship, meaning that any task force at all could have fighter support, even without a flat-top present. Lockheed also had an entry in this category, the XFV, but it never actually achieved full transition from vertical to horizontal flight, and never flew without a protective undercarriage. The Pogo managed several such transitions. The concept had a serious flaw, though. Imagine, for a moment, trying to land this thing on the fantail of a frigate, pitching and heaving in the middle of the ocean.

Yeah. No one else thought it was a good idea, either. You have to love a flight test report that ends, "We think it highly inadvisable to land this airplane."

We can look back and laugh now, but still ... this would have been a fine time to be a staff engineer at Convair. They got to work on some incredible stuff. For every crazy idea that didn't work, they had one or two that did. Designs that were cutting-edge when conceived were sometimes obsolete by the time they entered production. It was a wild, crazy time, and I'm kind of sorry to have missed it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Election 2012 Preview: Handicapping the Primaries, Part II

Now that football season is underway, it's just about time for the Presidential primary season to being in earnest. Just about everyone who's going to participate in next year's Republican primary has declared their candidacy. And, of course, we already know who the Democratic nominee will be. (You get three guesses. The first two don't count.) With all that said, we're going to dust off our crystal ball, and do some more prognosticating. (All figures from, current as of Friday night.)

(Prognostication is something I probably shouldn't do. My record is somewhat less than stellar. I'm on record predicting Donovan McNabb to give the Eagles good reason to regret trading him to the Redskins, after all, and we all know how that turned out. Anyway...)

Democratic Party

I'm only doing this for completeness' sake. It's all over bar the shouting. As I said before, in the modern era, sitting Presidents just don't get turfed for re-nomination. And also in the modern era, they just don't go for a re-do on their running mates, either. So, I'm not even going to bother looking up the numbers. It's Obama/Biden for Team Blue in 2012, unless one or both of them get run over by a bus or something. (Which ain't gonna happen.)

Republican Party

And the Republican race is about to get fun. In the list to follow, one person wasn't even on it back in March, and ... well, let's just get to it.

Rick Perry, 32% -- And, surging out of nowhere, the Governor of Texas is in the lead, at least according to Vegas. He should officially declare his candidacy tomorrow in South Carolina. This is a development that should surprise no one. He spent a good bit of time last year denying he'd seek the Presidency. But it takes an extraordinarily humble man to resist that clarion call, and successful politicians are very seldom humble. He'd already become the longest-serving Governor in Texas' history. What else was there for him to do, but to go for the brass ring? And in a very real sense, his presence sucks all the oxygen out of the tent for everyone else. With his executive experience, his popularity with the Tea Party, and his skill in political skullduggery, he steals damn near everyone's trump cards. The man's got a clear path to the nomination, provided he doesn't do anything utterly stupid.

Mitt Romney, 29% -- Romney still clings stubbornly to second place. As well he should: he's been laying the groundwork for 2012 ever since the dust settled from 2008. But nothing important has changed. The big millstone around his neck is still the fact that ObamaCare is RomneyCare with the serial numbers filed off. He's going to have to find a way to run away from that without looking ridiculous. This feat is probably beyond him. He'll do all right in the Northeast. But once the race swings into the South and West ... well, let's just say Perry's got him bore-sighted.

Sarah Palin, 7% -- Yes, no one else is even out of single digits. Frankly, Palin has waited too long to get into the race. Michele Bachmann has already garnered much of her Tea Party base, and Rick Perry has already stolen most of that thunder. There might be room for two Tea Party candidates in the primary. No way is there room for three. Thanks for playing, Ms. Palin, your consolation prize is a Fox News gig.

Ron Paul, 6% -- Ron Paul will hang on until the bloody, bitter end. He hasn't a ghost of a chance of winning the nomination, but as long as he gets a bully pulpit, he'll use it to air his ideas. He's quite mad, of course, but I respect his persistence.

Michele Bachmann, 5% -- Given that Bachmann will probably win Iowa, I'm surprised to find her this low on the list. I'm going to kick myself for not buying a handful of Bachmann shares now, and unloading them right after the Iowa caucuses. I could turn a tidy profit. Still, she won't last. She's got Iowa, Romney's got New Hampshire, but after the race heads South, it's all Perry all day. (Seriously, I don't see how that dude loses, unless he shoots himself in the foot.)

Tim Pawlenty, 5% -- And sinking like a stone. I don't see how he recovers from the evisceration he got in last night's GOP debate. Stone barking mad Bachmann may be, but she was all over Pawlenty like a cheap suit. This just ain't Tim's year.

Others -- Not much to say. Newt's toast, but we knew that, even if no one's actually told him yet. He's still got a 1% share, for some inexplicable reason. Other than that, I see a whole bunch of names with zeroes by them. To a first approximation, this is probably going to be a three-way race initially: Perry, Romney, and Bachmann. Then, there'll be a down-select to Perry and Romney, and I expect Perry to win the nomination. They're laying down a 32% chance that the VP nominee will be Marco Rubio, but that's no more than a wild guess. As we all know, the VP pick comes down to who wins the nomination, and what sort of VP they want. We don't have enough information to go on yet to make a reasonable prediction.

And The Winner Is...

Currently, the betting line is 51%-47% in favor of the Democratic candidate, if you go by party. On the individuals list, Barack Obama leads with 49%, the nearest competitor being Rick Perry at 17%. It's going to be a tougher sell next year unless the economy improves, but if the Republicans go full-bore extremist, that might scare enough independents back into Obama's column. It'll be an interesting election season next summer and fall. But, I still think it favors the incumbent. Obama/Biden for the win is still worth a buck or two.

Remember, kids, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, July 29, 2011

For Want Of A Nail

I have a fascination with the last irretrievable moment. In every accident, in every major event, there's almost always a definable moment where disaster could have been averted. If only key people had had one key piece of information, if only they'd made one decision differently, everything could have been different.

There was one such moment during the last tragic mission of Columbia. If the manager in charge had pushed for satellite images of the shuttle's underside, the extent of the damage might have been known, and it might have been possible to mount a rescue effort. There's a lot of mights involved ... but we also might have gotten those seven people back alive. And we might be seeing one now, in Washington. But that's not the one I'm talking about today.

On the first of June, 2009, Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean. Its automatic systems had blurted out signals of danger, and then, silence. At the time, I had speculated about what might have gone wrong. Speculation was all it amounted to. Without the flight data recorders, no one would ever know the truth of the matter, and the data recorders were buried under eleven thousand feet of ocean. I fully expected no one would ever see them again.

I vastly underestimated the tenacity of France's Bureau of Investigation and Analysis. In May 2010, they had narrowed the location down to a five by five kilometer area. That gave them a small enough zone to allow a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to make a more detailed search. In April of this year, they found the wreckage, and with it not only the flight data recorder, but also the cockpit voice recorder. If that wasn't amazing enough, they were able to recover all of the data from both devices. Truly, this was astounding work, and my hat's off to them.

Now, after sifting through the reams of data available to them, the BEA has issued some preliminary reports. It turns out that some of my initial speculations were right, some less so.

The data clearly tells us that the pitot probes had iced over, corrupting the data going into the air data computers. This meant that the data feeding the primary flight displays weren't any good. What's not clear to me yet is exactly what happened next. They don't say if an updraft lifted the nose of the aircraft, or if the ice on the aircraft caused it to slow to a dangerously low speed. I'm guessing the latter, because they say that the crew pulled the nose of the aircraft up, which they probably wouldn't have done if the aircraft was already nose-high. The main point is, the aircraft was already on the verge of a stall, and lifting the nose made a bad problem worse. The aircraft then simply fell out of the sky.

The preliminary report released today says that it's basically a pilot training problem. Pilots typically have little to no training flying an aircraft manually at that speed and altitude, and therefore have little intuition on how they should recover from a situation like this. The BEA recommendation is to add this condition to the pilot training syllabus.

After thinking about it a bit, I have a few observations of my own.

1) Standby instruments rarely get the respect they deserve. Ideally, your cockpit scan should include your standby instruments, especially in a glass-cockpit airplane. If your air data computers are hosed for whatever reason, your standby instruments may still have good information on what your airplane's doing. If your standby instruments don't agree with your primary displays, you've got a problem. Exactly what kind of problem you won't know, but at least you can start looking. This particular failure cascade seems to indicate that the crew were still flying by the primary displays, up to the point where they no longer had any aerodynamic control. Respect your ISIS, ladies and gents, that's what it's there for.

2) Airbus makes an exceptionally sturdy fuselage. Really, this could apply to any modern composite-structure fuselage. They're absurdly strong. From the initial reports, I expected that the aircraft would have broken up in midair from aerodynamic stresses. A mostly aluminum structure probably would have. But from the wreckage, we know that it was intact when it hit the water. It was doing some pretty serious gyrations on the way down, and didn't come apart. That's solid construction.

3) These days, we can find damn near anything, damn near anywhere. I was sure those recorders were gone forever. Fish food, if there are any fish that live two miles down. Apparently, modern sonar is as good as a searchlight. I don't know exactly how those French submarines were able to narrow the field down as close as they did, and for obvious reasons they're not telling. But it's clear that if they want something found on the ocean floor, it can be found. And that wasn't a guarantee ten, or even five years ago.

4) There's a good reason for all this, besides morbid curiosity. The reason people like me pick disasters apart like this isn't that we're morbid toads. We may be, but that's beside the point. We want to know what happened, and how it happened, so we can stop it from happening next time. If that's even possible. The important lesson to come out of all this is that we've uncovered a gap in pilot training. We have the means at our disposal to close that gap. Thirty minutes of simulator time a year, and a pilot will have "experienced" this situation with enough fidelity that he or she will know what to do if the real thing ever happens. The next time this happens we'll probably never hear about it. The passengers will experience a bout of worse than normal turbulence, the pilots will experience five minutes of bowel-freezing terror, but the airplane will arrive at its scheduled destination. We'd have not known this, if we'd let it alone. Poking and prodding is part of our job. Our duty. Not always the most pleasant part, but an essential part nonetheless.

It's not much consolation for the people who lost loved ones two years ago, but this knowledge, painfully gained, may allow us to save the next one. That's certainly worth something.

Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Don Seath, my first professor in Aerospace Engineering, who passed away in May from pancreatic cancer. You taught me well.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XVI: First Clash


There is a misconception common to all belligerent parties in virtually ever war that has occurred in human history. It is a misconception so common that the catchphrases associated with it are almost impossible to link to a particular conflict. "Our boys will be home before the leaves fall." "They'll be home before Christmas." While the second can at least be placed confidently after the reign of Constantine the Great, the former has probably been said in every human language that has ever existed.

For one, while it's true that at a war's outset both sides believe that they will win, one side must be wrong. For another, at a war's outset, each side usually believes -- mistakenly -- that the other side is made up of ineffectual pushovers that can't stand the heat. For recent examples, you need only look to the phrases "Mother of all battles" and "Shock and Awe" for prominent cases on both sides. The same was true a century and a half ago. The same was true throughout recorded history. Truly, some things never change.

The fever produced by the simultaneous forces of a fervent belief in victory coupled with a fixed belief in the other side's inherent cowardice caused the major papers of the North to temporarily push Lincoln away from the plan drafted by his army commander, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. Scott, you remember, had proposed to first surround the Confederacy, then cut it in half. This would take years, but would be the surest way to bring the Confederacy to defeat. No one was balking at the "sure defeat" part, it was the "it would take years" clause that had them dismayed. With such a fine army encamped, and with such a pusillanimous foe, how could our fine boys but win glorious, prompt victory?

In such passions are horrifying disasters born.

The Army of Northeastern Virginia had come into being out of the various companies, brigades, and divisions that had been assembled from the troops gathered to defend Washington, immediately after the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April, 1861. President Lincoln appointed Brigadier General Irvin McDowell as its commander. General McDowell was under immense pressure from the Northern press to go out and do something. President Lincoln was, as well. McDowell initially resisted such pressure, sure that his men weren't yet ready for such action. McDowell was well-suited to make such a judgement, having been an instructor of tactics at West Point. It was an objection swept aside by Lincoln: "You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike." So, on July 16, General McDowell left Washington with the largest army that had yet been assembled on the North American continent, with the assignment to go out, find the enemy, and engage him closely. Their initial objective was a rail junction at Manassas, Virginia.

The rail junction was held by a much smaller Confederate force under Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, of whom we've heard already. In a coincidence that would become commonplace in the years to follow, Beauregard and McDowell had been classmates at West Point. Beauregard, initially, only commanded 20,000 men against McDowell's 30,000. But one of the advantages of sitting on a rail junction? Reinforcements can ride in as soon as you know you need them. Beauregard held all the crossings of the Bull Run, so while McDowell searched for ways to outflank his old classmate, Beauregard sent dispatches by telegraph calling for extra men.

They almost didn't arrive in time. McDowell held Beauregard's attention with part of his force, while he sent 20,000 men in a flanking move to threaten Beauregard's left flank. They forced a crossing at Stone House, and all that stood between them and Beauregard's rear was a single reduced brigade of Confederate infantry. If the orders had been given and received properly, this might well have been the end of it. But they weren't: the Union brigade that had been intended to lead the attack held up to wait for further orders, and the brigade that had been intended to feint in support found itself out in front all alone. Meanwhile, fresh reinforcements arrived, and Beauregard was able to plug the hole, and the battle was properly joined.

In their defense, flanking maneuvers are very complex, and require very close coordination and communication to pull off, even today. In an era when orders had to be delivered by hand, it required well-trained officers and well-drilled troops to have a realistic chance of doing it at all. At this point, the Union had few of either. For while Lincoln was right, and the Confederacy had this problem also, the Confederate President had guessed right, and had put his best men and best troops on the line between Washington and Richmond, expecting that is where the heaviest blow would fall, first.

I've mentioned this hidden advantage before. It's not so much that the Confederacy had better officers, or better soldiers. It's that, having no previously-existing officer corps to placate, Davis could put his most able men in the most crucial commands. It's no mere coincidence that Beauregard was present at both Fort Sumter and at Bull Run.

The Confederates had another crucial advantage in this battle: interior lines of communication. The battle lines between two armies usually curve, the commander who sits on the inside of the curve has a shorter distance through which he has to move men and orders, which makes controlling the battle much easier.

The sum total of all of this is that, while McDowell initially enjoyed significant advantages in manpower and position, his inexperienced subordinates could not make enough use of those advantages to penetrate the Confederate lines. They certainly tried hard enough. And it was a near-run thing even so. During the battle, the Union artillery commander moved two of his guns to the far end of his line, hoping to fire from enfilade into the Confederate army. At about three in the afternoon, these two guns were overrun by the 33rd Virginia. The 33rd Virginia wore blue uniforms, and the Confederate Stars-and-Bars banner had horizontal stripes that, from a distance, looked almost like the Stars-and-Stripes used by the Union. Orders to fire on the captured guns were countermanded by an officer who mistook the Virginians for Union forces. The Virginians turned the guns on the Federals, marking the turn of the tide. McDowell had lost the initiative, and with the arrival of Confederate reinforcements he had lost the manpower advantage as well. He was forced to order a retreat.

The retreat began well enough, but the order of march was bungled by inexperienced officers. An overturned artillery wagon caught fire, sparking a retreat into a rout. Men who had been marching in good order suddenly turned and ran headlong towards their rear. They were joined by the wealthy citizens of Washington, who had turned out with picnic baskets to watch the glorious display. Retreating troops found the roads jammed with carriages.

One Union officer managed to distinguish himself in the humiliating rout: William Tecumseh Sherman was grazed in the knee and shoulder while leading his men against the enemy, and managed to keep his men in better order during the retreat than most. His superiors would remember this, later.

When he saw the enemy in headlong retreat, President Davis urged his commanders to pursue the enemy closely. But, now that the were on the offensive rather than the defensive, Beauregard discovered to his dismay that inexperience is a knife that cuts both ways. The day's fighting had left his men very disorganized, and it took quite some time to get them sorted back into their proper units again. Beauregard elected not to pursue. McDowell was initially afraid of a Confederate counterattack on Washington, but was able to employ aerial reconnaissance (Professor Lowe's balloon Enterprise) to verify that no such concentration of Confederate forces was happening. Both armies withdrew from the field.

The reaction on both sides could be fairly characterized as shock. The Northerners were shocked when their much-anticipated glorious victory had turned into an ignominious rout. The Southerners were shocked to discover that the Yankees would put up a vigorous fight, after all. Both sides came to the sudden realization that this would be a long war, far longer than many had anticipated. It was now clear that victory would come with a staggeringly high price tag. And it was equally clear that defeat would carry a price still higher. And, above all, one thing was now known with crystal clarity:

The only men who'd be home before the leaves fell would be the maimed and the dead.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLVI

Atlantis took to the skies today for the last time, closing the books on thirty years of Space Shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center. For the sixth time, we've seen the last launch of an American spacecraft series. As a salute to NASA's fifty-year history of manned spaceflight, here they are: the swan songs.

First: Gus Grissom on America's second spaceflight, Liberty Bell 7, the last flight of the Mercury-Redstone series.

Second: The last flight of the Mercury program, Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7.

Third: Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin on Gemini XII.

Fourth: Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt, and Ronald Evans on Apollo 17. On this December day in 1972, some say the sun rose twice...

Fifth: That wasn't the end for Apollo, though. Apollo spacecraft would fly four more times, on Saturn IB rockets. The last one would fly in July 1975, carrying Thomas Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand on a rendezvous with Alexei Leonov and Valery Kubasov during the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Sixth: The next "last one" wouldn't come for another thirty-six years. Today, Atlantis flew into orbit for the last time, carrying Chris Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Sandra Magnus, and Rex Walheim towards the International Space Station.

As of this writing (11AM Friday) no videos of the launch had been posted to YouTube yet. So, the roll-out will have to stand in for now.

(Addendum, 10Jul11: NASA TV comes through.)

Which spacecraft will be number seven? That isn't yet clear. What is perfectly clear, though, is that there will be one. Despite the problems we're facing, America isn't prepared to give up on this enterprise just yet. Besides, I've got a sneaking suspicion that we've already seen lucky number seven's prototype...

And the journey continues!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLV

I've been unavoidably detained by my paying gig, but I should be back to something like a normal schedule shortly. In the meantime, there are a couple of May/June 50th Anniversaries worth noting.

Frank Sinatra once said, "Miles Davis never wasted a note, boy, or a word on a fool." He was right. Roughly fifty years ago this summer, Miles Davis released Kind of Blue. And every note is exactly where it should be.

Fifty years later, artists all over are still covering it:

Also about fifty years ago, not quite a month after Yuri Gagarin's first orbital flight, Alan Shepard became the first American to enter space with the flight of Freedom 7. The Atlas rocket that would eventually take Mercury into orbit wasn't quite ready yet (it had an unfortunate tendency to try to burn all of its fuel at the same time) so the first couple of flights used the smaller Redstone missile.

So far as I'm aware, no one's ever attempted a "cover" version of Mercury, which is probably for the best.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XV: Tell Me How This Thing Works


The month of April and May in 1861 were a very confused -- and confusing -- time. No one was entirely sure what was happening on the ground in some of the border states, least of all the poor folks that lived there.

Take Missouri for example. Missouri's pro-Secession Governor, Claiborne Jackson, called a convention after the initial rush of seceding slave states to consider joining the Confederacy. The convention so convened voted quite convincingly against secession. The Governor wasn't happy with that answer, but there wasn't much he could do about it. Then, after Fort Sumter, the Governor rejected President Lincoln's call for volunteers. Not only that, but after a secessionist mob seized the U.S. Arsenal in Liberty, Missouri, Governor Jackson called out the state militia and put secessionist officers in charge. Then, Captain Nathaniel Lyon of the U.S. Army captured a fair number of said secessionist militia at Camp Jackson ... and all Hell broke loose.

The secessionists failed to make much headway in Missouri, but Governor Jackson got away, with a "government-in-exile" of sorts. Technically, I suppose you could say that Missouri belonged both to the Union and the Confederacy. It was a God-awful mess all around. It was like this all through the border states, particularly in Missouri, parts of Tennessee, and in the northwestern part of Virginia. There was fighting between ardent pro-secessionists, and equally ardent Unionists, but quite often it wasn't really about Secession or Union. All politics is local, after all, and there were a lot of cases where the crisis gave people a semi-legitimate reason to do something they might have wanted to do for decades...

"What's that? That damn wheelbarrow-stealing bastard Jenkins is a secessionist? Well, I reckon that makes me a UNION MAN! Come on boys, get yer squirrel guns!"

Later on, they'd tell their grandchildren about their ardor for liberty and Union, but if they were being honest with themselves, a lot of it in those confused early days was good old-fashioned score-settling. And some of that score-settling wouldn't end for years after the war was officially over...

But not all of the fighting was unorganized. There were a few men who were working according to a plan. Major General George McClellan was one such man. He had the command of the Department of the Ohio, headquartered in Cincinnati. McClellan was a West Point man, and had been generally successful at everything he did. Among other things, he had re-written the Army's cavalry manual, invented a new saddle, and surveyed several railroad routes. He had actually resigned from the Army in 1857 to work for the Illinois Central Railroad. He had also worked for the Ohio and Missouri railroad, so he knew well the importance of the railroad to keeping an army well-supplied. With Virginia seceded, part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was now in enemy territory. This was a state of affairs that could not be allowed to continue. Also, McClellan had good reason to believe that this part of Virginia was of a strongly pro-Union sentiment, and he could count on considerable local support.

McClellan ordered Colonel Benjamin Kelley to take his troops south, and secure the line of the B&O Railroad. This area of Virginia was only lightly defended, being that no one really expected a major attack here. There's a pretty good reason for that. Northwestern Virginia was a rough, hilly place. It's hard to move men and supplies. The Confederates holding this ground were at the end of a fairly long supply chain, while Col. Kelley would be fairly close to his base. And, if he could seize and hold the railroad, resupply would be fairly simple.

The Battle of Phillipi was a fairly small affair, all told. Some called it the "Phillipi Races", because the Confederates didn't do a whole lot of fighting, and did a lot more running. They were outflanked, outnumbered, and badly outgunned. Only four Union men were killed out of about two thousand, while the Confederates lost 26 of about 800 defenders.

At the time it was dismissed as inconsequential. But there were two important facts about this skirmish. For one, it was the first engagement between regular Federal and regular Confederate forces in an open pitched battle. And for another, it marked the beginning of the long, slow campaign that would proceed down the Ohio river to the Mississippi, and then from the Gulf of Mexico northward, meeting somewhere in the middle. The Union controlled the railroads along the Ohio River, and this would never be seriously threatened by the Confederacy, although they would attempt raids throughout the rest of the war.

The Union was beginning to execute its grand strategy. Would the Confederacy ever have an answer?