Friday, April 29, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLIII

I will be on a short hiatus for a couple of weeks, as my wife and I celebrate our tenth anniversary. I'll be back sometime in the middle of May. Until then, a "late hit" on Easter, in the form of a conversation between the Pope and Michelangelo. Now, it's well-known that da Vinci painted "The Last Supper". Some speculate that this is because His Holiness had some ... artistic conflicts with Michelangelo.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XIV: Grand Strategy


With the secession of the border states, the battle lines were ... not quite drawn. The first few months of fighting were very, very confused. For one, especially in places like Kentucky and Missouri, it wasn't immediately clear which territory belonged to whom. And for another, both sides were not entirely sure how they were going to go about this. Everyone hoped that some kind of compromise could be reached, that some kind of deal could be struck, so very little actual planning had taken place if the worst came to pass.

Well, the worst had come to pass. Now what?

The Confederacy

Jefferson Davis was an 1828 graduate of West Point. He had served with distinction as a colonel of volunteers during the Mexican War, and had been Secretary of War under President Pierce. During the war that began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Jefferson Davis was, for all intents and purposes, his own Secretary of War. I say this mainly to draw your attention to one salient fact: Davis knew, Davis had to have known, that the Confederacy was punching out of its weight class. In every category that was measurable or quantifiable, the Confederacy lagged behind the Union. They had fewer men, they had fewer industries, they had fewer miles of railroad track. If it became a war of attrition, there was no possible result but defeat. President Davis was a man well-versed in military affairs, so none of this would have come as any sort of surprise or shock. So, from the very beginning, the Confederacy looked for salvation across the Atlantic.

The "King Cotton" strategy rested upon the reliance of European, and particularly British industries on Southern-produced cotton. Just as Southern plantations supplied the industrial mills in the North, they also supplied similar mills in England's industrial towns. Let the Union blockade as it will, if the might of the Royal Navy could be enlisted to keep the South's ports open, well, they'd be kept open. The might of the Royal Navy on the open seas was beyond question. From the very beginning, the Confederates had sent commissioners to London to seek recognition from the British crown. On the one hand, many Englishmen would find it quite pleasant to poke the Yanks in the eye with a sharp stick. But, there were two major strokes against such action. One, without question it'd mean war with the United States, carrying with it the loss of American grain exports, the probable loss of a great deal of English merchant shipping, and the possible loss of Canada to invasion. And for another ... England had abolished slavery in 1833. Much of the English public would find it disquieting at best to ally openly with an avowedly pro-slavery power. That all said, English merchants would have no qualms at all about doing business with Southern gentlemen. The South would receive small amounts of arms, and a few specially-built commerce raiders, from such contacts with the British.

No one else in Europe cared all that much. France was interested in propping up the government of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, and Emperor Maximilian was somewhat friendly to the Confederacy. The most important port for the Confederacy, then, would not be Norfolk or Charleston, it would be Vera Cruz, which the Union wouldn't blockade.

The Union

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott had been in uniform longer than anyone in American history, before or since. While President Abraham Lincoln was General Scott's commander-in-chief, Lincoln yet had much to learn about military strategy. Lincoln was rectifying that situation as fast as he could, by reading everything the Library of Congress had on the subject, but in the early months of the war he would lean heavily on General Scott's experience. And, in General Scott's opinion, one thing mattered above all else: supplies. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach, and he was mostly correct. For most of history an army could pretty much live off the land. But a modern army, in addition to food, also needed powder and ammunition and rifles and cannon, all of which could only be made in a few specialized places. Then, all of that materiel had to be shipped from its point of manufacture, to where the army happened to be. General Scott saw the keys to victory as first ensuring that the Union army could stay well-supplied, and secondly denying the same to the rebels. Thus could the rebel army be starved out, rather than battered into submission. The Union would no doubt win a war of pure attrition, but the cost was horrifying to contemplate.

For the first, to ensure Union lines of supply, it was vital that the Union retain control of the Ohio river valley, and of the railroads that ran along its banks. This, among other reasons, was why it was so important for the Union to retain possession of Kentucky. With both banks of the Ohio river secure, the Union had a safe line of communication and supply between its western and eastern areas. This was essential, if the Union was to be able to use its advantages in men, manufacturing, and transportation to its fullest.

For the second, to disrupt the Confederacy's supply lines, the first element of General Scott's plan would be a Union naval blockade of Confederate ports. This would have two effects. First, the Confederacy would be unable to realize large shipments of military equipment from abroad, nor would they be able to engage in foreign trade. Second, the Confederacy would be forced to draw down its reserves of hard currency for those foreign transactions they could complete even in the face of a blockade. The next element of General Scott's plan would be to drive a Union army down the Mississippi river to cut the Confederacy in two. To an excellent approximation, the Mississippi river was the Confederacy's transportation infrastructure. Much of the rail network that the South had was focused on getting agricultural products to ports on the Mississippi. If the Union controlled the river, it would be very difficult for the Confederacy to keep its soldiers sufficiently supplied with food and ammunition. This would take a heavy toll on the Confederacy's ability to make war, and would facilitate the Union's victory, at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.

General Scott's plan was not immediately adopted. It was not popular with the political leadership, since it assumed a long war lasting years, not months. Virtually everyone, on both sides, assumed that the war would consist of a short campaign and a quick victory. And both sides were assembling the force that they were sure would win the coming battle. Spirits were high, and morale was excellent; visions of glorious deeds danced in young mens' heads.

Except for those that had read their history books.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XIII: Second Secession


[Ed. Note: For another anniversary in 1961, look here. And for another anniversary in 1981, look here.]

On the 9th of April, 1861, a small flotilla stood to sea from New York harbor, bound for Fort Sumter. They should get there in two or three days, with several days to spare before Major Anderson's supplies run out. There was even a rumor that the reinforcements were bound for Fort Pickens in Florida. This would have been an admirable deception operation except ...

Except that President Lincoln had sent a message to Governor Pickens of South Carolina informing him of his intent to resupply Fort Sumter. I guess operational security had not been invented yet.

On the other hand, there was a good reason why Lincoln would have done this. In his inaugural address, he had sworn to hold all Federal properties and territories. He was publicly stating his legal right -- indeed, his legal duty -- to feed his men. And, he was thrusting a choice on the Secessionist Governor: Will it be peace, or will it be war? The choice is yours.

Also, this time Major Anderson would not be caught by surprise. This time, the Secretary of War sent Major Anderson a message to expect relief. This time, they would be ready and waiting. So, unfortunately, would General Beauregard.

Upon receiving Lincoln's message, Governor Pickens contacted General Beauregard. Their mutual decision was to kick that matter upstairs to the Confederate government. Jefferson Davis instructed General Beauregard to demand the immediate surrender of the fort, and if that was refused, to reduce the fort before reinforcements could arrive. Davis knew -- Davis had to have known -- that he was choosing war.

Meanwhile, Fox's flotilla arrived at their rendezvous point off of Charleston Harbor. Well, most of it, anyway. As it turned out, some orders had gotten mixed up, and one of the troop ships really did head out to Fort Pickens. Ah well, adopt, adapt, and evolve: Fox still had plenty of time to load some small boats to sneak some supplies into the fort. Except, that is, for the fact that heavy seas made the operation of transferring supplies from his ships to the smaller boats between difficult and impossible.

It is more or less at this point that Beauregard's ultimatum was delivered to Major Anderson. Major Anderson replied that, unless he received supplies by the fifteenth, he would have been starved out in any case. But he hedged: if he did get some resupply, he would contnue to resist. The Confederates would not accept this reply. They told Major Anderson that in one hour, they would open fire. This was at 3:20 AM, on the 12th of April. At 4:30 AM, the bombardment began.

Almost immediately, Fort Sumter's hidden flaw was revealed. The fort's walls were very thick, and built of strong brick. The Confederate artillery might take years to batter them down. But they were built to withstand naval artillery, firing on a flat trajectory; Fort Sumter was never intended to face high-angle plunging fire. Of all the guns bearing on Fort Sumter, the most deadly were the mortars and the heavy Columbiads. And the most dangerous ammunition they used weren't explosive shells, but heated shot.

While the exterior of the fort was brick, the interior buildings were all wood. When hit by heated shot, they tended to catch fire. And, as the day wore on, the fires got closer and closer to the powder magazine. The weather, the same weather that was hampering Fox's attempts to load his boats, bought Major Anderson some time; a rain shower late in the day on the 12th extinguished the fires burning within the fort. But this was, at best, a temporary reprieve. The beleagured Union garrison fought on for another day. At 2PM on the 13th, low on ammunition and with fires burning out of control, and with his men hungry and exhausted, Major Anderson was satisfied that they had defended their post with honor. They had fought a day and a half, and had endured over three thousand Confederate rounds without losing a man. And in the end, the specific terms offered to Anderson were that he evacuate the fort, not surrender. The distinction was an important one in Anderson's eyes. Fox's flotilla, originally intended to reinforce the garrison, instead facilitated its withdrawal.

Now, there could be no doubt that the seceded States were in open rebellion against the Federal Government. When he heard of the fall of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers from the still-loyal States to recapture lost Federal properties in the South.

Reaction was, as they say, mixed. Lincoln got his 75,000 volunteers, and then some. But the border states, who had been content to sit on the fence, now had to jump. Virginia was the first, passing an ordinance of secession on April 17th. Then, Arkansas and Tennessee followed suit, seceding on May 6th and May 7th, respectively. Which put North Carolina in a bit of a bind. North Carolina didn't particularly want to secede. But, with Tennessee's secession, they were surrounded by seceded States. If they declined to secede, they would probably be promptly invaded by the Confederacy. If they seceded, they'd eventually be invaded by the Union, but it would take the Union a while to get there. North Carolina seceded on May 20th.

Now, Confederate apologists will tell you that this second secession was about States' Rights, and this defense is actually marginally better than when used the first time around. Each of these four States elected not to secede in the first flush of passion. They only acted now, upon Lincoln promising military action against the Southern States. But this is essentially rubbish. The second secession would not be necessary without the first, and we've already established beyond any possible doubt that the first secession was entirely about slavery. That was their first, last, and only reason. With that, I think the point is made, and I shall not belabor it any longer.

The other three border States, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, stayed in the Union. Once Virginia tipped, Lincoln knew that he absolutely, positively must retain these three, by any means necessary. Maryland, obviously, since if Maryland seceded it'd be over. The District of Columbia, and the Government with it, would be surrounded. Kentucky and Missouri were important, because of the access to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that they granted. The reasons why this is so important will be discussed later. Lieutenant General Scott was old, and sick, and looking for a successor; but he had a plan.

The next few months would be a very confused time. But two things were clear. What had been one nation was now two. And there would be a war to determine whether or not that state of affairs would persist. Further, some were afraid that this war would be long, and bloody.

They would be right.

T+50: Poyekhali!

[Ed. Note: Another anniversary from 1861 is here. And another anniversary from 1981 is here.]

Fifty years ago...

By April 12, 1961, only fifteen successful launches into orbit had been made. Today, the Soviet Union would attempt to make that total sixteen. They would also up the ante by putting a human being on top of the rocket. The Americans were planning to do much the same thing, of course. But, for reasons I've discussed earlier, they would be too late to claim the honor of being first.

(Actually, it's a slightly different problem. The orbital phase of Mercury was paced by the availability of the Atlas booster, which wasn't quite ready for prime time yet.)

It is interesting to compare and contrast the Mercury and Vostok capsules. Each vehicle shows basic design traits that would carry down into their descendents. The Mercury capsule was designed to sit snugly on top of a Redstone or Atlas missile. It was a streamlined, conical shape, and served as its own fairing for getting through the atmosphere. Space and mass were at an absolute premium, so the capsule barely had enough room for its pilot. It was sometimes said that you didn't climb into a Mercury capsule, so much as you wore it.

The Russians weren't quite so tight on mass constraints, since they had more powerful rockets at their disposal. But, they didn't bother to streamline their capsule at all. It might have never occurred to them to do so. "It's a spaceship," they'd probably say. "It operates in vacuum. Why in the world would you bother to streamline it? Just put a fairing over it for the first few minutes, and it's all good." This design trend would continue with the Soyuz capsule, still in use.

It's also interesting to compare and contrast astronaut selection and training techniques. Many of the training methods were similar, insofar as no one knew precisely what to expect. They wanted to select men who would cope well with the unexpected. The similarity ended there, though. The Americans decided to start with experienced test pilots, since they were already in excellent physical condition, and had proven their ability to cope with ... unusual working environments. You knew the men you picked could handle themselves in a crisis. The ones who couldn't, didn't last long as test pilots.

The Russians went another route entirely. They started with young, physically robust military pilots; then they trained them to be cosmonauts. Their main concern was whether or not a man could endure space flight at all. Famously, the manual controls on Vostok were behind a locked panel. This wasn't because the Russians didn't trust their pilots to land where they were told to. It was because the engineers weren't sure that, after hours in free-fall, a man would still have the faculties necessary to control the spacecraft. It was a safety feature. As it happens, the locks would only be used for the first flight, after which they were decided unnecessary. The original plan called for the codes to be radioed up to the cosmonaut if they were needed. "But, what if the radio goes out?" Well, they put the codes in an envelope that the cosmonaut could open when directed. The cosmonaut detachment commander, Nikolai Kamanin, thought that was a stupid idea. He decided that he'd give his man the code before launch, and trust him not to use it unless it was an emergency.

Two men were training for that first flight. One was Gherman Titov, an Air Force pilot who excelled at gymnastics. The other was Yuri Gagarin, another Air Force pilot, slightly older and slightly more experienced than Titov. The decision on who would fly was not made until the morning of the mission. Gagarin was chosen, partly because he was older and seen as more stable, a steady man who would not panic.

At about 7AM local time, Gagarin was bolted into the Vostok capsule. This brings up another difference between Vostok and Mercury: Vostok had no escape tower. It was not believed to be necessary, since the pilot was already equipped with an ejection seat. They couldn't make a parachute big enough to slow down the capsule enough for a survivable landing, so they decided that the pilot would punch out and land on his own parachute. This would serve double-duty as the pilot's emergency escape if anything should go wrong with the launch.

Gagarin was calm as they worked their way through the pre-launch checklist. Then, at seven past nine local time, the final count began.

Less than ten minutes later, Vostok 1 was in orbit. It would be another 25 minutes before ground control had gathered enough data to be certain that it was a stable orbit. Not that it mattered much at this point. Stable or not, Vostok 1 was committed. The only large engine left was the one intended to de-orbit the spacecraft before re-entry.

Vostok had a beautifully-ingenious device for orienting the spacecraft prior to deorbit. Orientation is crucial. You have to have the spacecraft's engine pointing in exactly the right direction, else you waste thrust. Assuming a circular orbit, all you need to do is make sure you're level, and pointed backwards. The Vzor device did this, with a window and some mirrors. The mirrors reflected the horizon such that it was visible all around the window's edge. So, if you were oriented level, you saw the horizon all around the edge of the window. Then, you look at the clouds rolling past the window. If they're going from the bottom straight to the top, bingo! Otherwise, you slew around in yaw until they line up.

Gagarin didn't have to do any of this by hand, though. The automatic systems worked quite well, and were perfectly able to line up and execute the de-orbit burn without direct intervention. But, there was one small problem. One of the pyro bolts had failed, and the re-entry capsule was still connected to the service module by a bundle of cables. The two halves began re-entry above Egypt, and Gagarin began to experience wild gyrations. He didn't mention this to ground control, for two reasons. One, he didn't think he was in serious trouble. And two, what could they do about it anyway? It's not like they could send up bolt-cutters.

As it happens, Gagarin's instincts were spot-on. The cable burned in two, and re-entry proceeded normally. At seven kilometers altitude, the hatch was released, and Gagarin punched out. He landed under his own parachute, and greeted the two startled farmers who met him with a request for a telephone to call Moscow.

Only an hour and a half had passed, but the world would be forever different. Man had taken his first halting steps into the Universe.

(You can recreate this for yourself, with Orbiter 2010, as demonstrated in the clip above. It's a fascinating experience.)

T+30: Hail, Columbia

[Ed. Note: Another anniversary from 1861 is here. And another anniversary from 1961 is here.]

Thirty years ago...

There's high-stakes testing, and then there's high-stakes testing.

In principle, there's nothing particularly wrong with all-up tests. It had worked pretty well in the Apollo program. In a traditional test program, you would have tested each stage individually, before trying to stack them all together. The problem was, if NASA had done that, they would never have met the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. So, to save time, they tested all three stages of the Saturn V rocket together. Twice the rocket flew unmanned, and it performed well enough that managers felt confident that they could put men on top of it for Apollo 8.

This philosophy was carried forward into the Space Shuttle program, with one additional twist. When the Space Shuttle flew into orbit on April 12, 1981, that would be the first time it flew into space. Its first flight would also be its first manned flight. For reasons known only to its designers, the Shuttle simply could not be flown automated. Oh, it could do just about everything by itself, with only one key exception.

The landing gear handle? It had to be pulled by hand.

So, on that April day in 1981, two men rode up the elevator to participate in one of the highest-risk test flights ever attempted.

Fittingly, the commander was the most experienced astronaut then on NASA's payroll. John Young had been selected as part of Group 2 in 1962. Prior to that, he had set time-to-climb records as a Navy test pilot as part of the F-4 Phantom II test program. He flew with Gus Grissom on the first flight of the Gemini spacecraft, and flew again as commander of Gemini 10. He would also fly twice in Apollo, first as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 10, then as Commander of Apollo 16. He had flown three different kinds of spacecraft, and had experienced five liftoffs and five landings (having had two of each on Apollo 16, obviously).

Young's co-pilot for this mission was a rookie astronaut, Robert Crippen. A rookie, maybe, but not a youngster, nor an inexperienced pilot. He had initially been selected as an astronaut in 1966, for the Department of Defense Manned Orbital Laboratory program. MOL was, to all intents and purposes, a manned reconnaissance satellite. Many of the details are still secret, but it's generally agreed that the cameras for the MOL were recycled into the unmanned KH-11 satellite. When the MOL program was cancelled in 1969, six of the MOL astronauts were recruited by NASA. So, why was a rookie flying the right-hand seat on the first flight? Simple: NASA needed experienced astronauts, and there was only one way to make them. The first four flights would be commanded by Apollo-era veterans: Young, Engle, Lousma, and Mattingly. Of the four, Engle had not flown in Earth orbit, but had flown the X-15 high and fast enough to make him the most experienced hypersonic glider pilot they had. Each of the four would be paired up with a "new guy", to give them experience so that they could enter the rotation as fully qualified commanders. The first four of these would be Crippen, Truly, Fullerton, and Hartsfield.

So, on that day, NASA's most experienced astronaut and its most promising rookie strapped into the cockpit of Columbia, and waited. Young's heart rate wasn't exceptionally high. He'd done this before, he knew the drill, this wasn't anything that worried him too much. Besides, if anything went wrong, that's what the black-and-yellow candy-striped handle was there for, right? Crippen's heart rate was somewhat higher. This was all new for him, something he'd eagerly anticipated for fifteen years now. (The large number of astronauts selected in the late 1960s, combined with the collapse of post-Apollo programs, led to some very lengthy waits.)

Finally, at almost exactly 6AM local time, the final count commenced.

Once they were shed of those oversized Roman candles, the rest was easy. Columbia made it into orbit for a two-day shakedown flight. There were a few unsettling things they found as they inspected the exterior of the ship: during launch, some of the protective tiles had come loose of the OMS pods. The really scary thing was ... did any come loose underneath? Because that was the only thing between Columbia and the searing heat of re-entry. Well, on the 14th of April, they'd find out. Now that they were in orbit, there was only one way home. They would have to fire the OMS rockets long enough to bring their orbital path down into the atmosphere. Then, John Young would have to fly the ship through re-entry, and land it on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Now, the biometrical data was reversed. Crippen was excited, but not terribly so. Young, on the other hand, was concerned. This was something he'd never done before. This was something no one had ever done before.

There were no guarantees they'd make it. A large crowd waited, hoping to greet them.

Of course, Columbia made it back, and made a perfect landing on April 14th. John Young would go on to command one more Space Shuttle flight, and since then, only eight people have equaled his record of six launches from Earth, and only two have surpassed it. Robert Crippen went on to command three more Space Shuttle missions, but none on Columbia.

Columbia herself would go on to fly into orbit 27 more times. Sadly, on her 28th and last mission, she would not land.

Friday, April 08, 2011

It Could Be Worse

[Editor's Note: I realized a couple of weeks ago that April 12th would be a trifecta of anniversaries, and I didn't want to give any one of them short shrift. But in the meantime, I've come across a fragment of a possibly apocryphal transcript of a conversation between Houston and the Space Station.]

"Mission Control to ISS ... Cathy? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you and Ron have been furloughed. And, since you're not authorized to use Federal property while on furlough ... um ... well, could you and Ron step outside for a bit while Congress sorts this mess out? What was that? AND the horse I rode in on?"

Friday, April 01, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLII

And now for something completely different ... and, I have to say, something that I'm not entirely sure is for real. But it looks awesome. I leave it up to you to judge. Chessboxing: is this a real sport, or an elaborate hoax?

It's almost enough to make me want to take up boxing. But then I remember that I'm only 5'6". So, I'm usually giving up a couple of inches of reach, which is not a fun place to be. I'd have to be murderously good at chess ... which I'm not. Oh, well.

I can see you looking at the date on the calendar. And I don't blame you. I think this is for real, but until I see it with my own eyes, I'll always wonder ... but to an extent, I don't care. If it's a hoax, at least it's an entertaining one.