Archive for January, 2012


President Reagan’s address to the nation follow the loss of the Challenger shuttle

January 29, 2012

This is what I meant in my previous post. After 26 years – has it really been that long? – this speech still moves me to tears. This man was a leader and he kept us from losing the vision after such a terrible calamity was broadcast on national television.

And I can only close  with the verse penned by Robert A. Heinlein as an additional stanza to the hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong To Save,” which was long ago adopted as the US Navy’s Hymn.

Almighty ruler of the all
Whose power extends to great and small,
Who guides the stars with steadfast law,
Whose least creation fills with awe –
Oh grant Thy mercy and Thy grace
To those who venture into space.


Presidental Vision – and more thoughts about the “Gingrich space program.”

January 27, 2012

One of the problems we have in this Presidential primary is that we tend to believe the sound bites we hear as the sum total of each candidate’s beliefs and philosophy. That is, of course, not true. I tend to listen to quite a bit of conservative talk radio, and I know that those people have their own agendas, too. Still, even if you’ve watched all the debates – and who would want to, with the infighting? – I think you only have a partial idea of what each candidate stands for.

Example: Newt Gingrich has released the bare bones of his “21st Century Contract with America.” You can find it here. It includes such pro-conservative items as lowering or eliminating many taxes, repealing regulations like Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley, and reforming the Federal Reserve. He was pretty specific in the documents about his plans.

You may disagree with him, but once you’ve read the Contract you at least know more about what the man stands for, instead of hearing people make jokes about “Newt’s crazy idea of a lunar colony.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, Newt actually knows whereof he speaks in regards to the space program from decades of involvement in it, including the Strategic Defense Initiative. We’ve been told for so long now that our space program is in decline and that we couldn’t possibly do such a thing in eight years that people believe it. Too many people think that somehow we were deluded into the race to the Moon by a misguided belief we were “beating the Russians” there. I’ve heard too many times that NASA knew before Apollo 11 that the Russians weren’t racing us to the Moon at all, that it was all a sham, some kind of hustle perpetrated by the “military-industrial complex.” (Thanks, President Eisenhower, for that term.) Of course, they were developing the N-1 giant launch vehicle, but the complexity of the task was too much for them, and each test flight failed. The Saturn V, on the other hand, was launched successfully every time.

The real truth is that we could be back on the Moon in less time than that, with appropriate funding and a belief that the funding level would remain predictable for the next five years. I’d love to believe we could do it in five years, but I think it would take at least six; a couple of years would be required just to rehire all of the personnel and reactivate the facilities.

I think it’s interesting that Lockheed Martin continued to build a simulator for docking the Orion, an Apollo-like space vehicle,  and continued to build the prototype vehicle even though they knew the program was dead; and that Boeing continued development of their CST-100 on their own money, and then both continued on the trickles that came out of NASA sort of under the table, as the space agency defied the Administration and Congress citing “previous contract commitments.”

Newt Gingrich is a pretty smart guy. He may have bigger dreams for America than Mitt Romney, but why is that a subject for ridicule? Back in 1979 the “Reagan is stupid” meme was already making its way through the media. Detractors liked to bring up the fact that he was a registered Democrat at one time. People said he was too old. People said he didn’t know enough to be President, and would be in far over his head. People said his wife was plastic, and that he had been divorced and both of those were liabilities. Wasn’t it funny that his supposed naivete actually turned out to be an inspiration to millions of people, not just in the US but in Eastern Europe, the USSR and other places? In fact, the only thing they could say that was positive was that he was “a great communicator.”

Ten years later he was referred to as “The Great Communicator.”

I feel like we’ve decided as a people that we are content to watch our 3D movies, and our football on our widescreen plasma TVs. We’ve decided to lament that China would soon overtake us, but what can we do? We can’t stop them, we have no right to stop them, and we’re a people in decline. The best we can hope for is that our decline is comfortable enough, and that maybe Social Security will last long enough. We’ll die earlier than we expected, because it’s too expensive too keep us alive even though we have the tools to do so.

I felt in 1979 that there was a grayness, a darkness, over the country. We were being told our savings would never recover. Countries in the Middle East did not respect us. Our President talked about a “National Malaise.” America was in decline, and somehow we were supposed to be. We deserved it, after the loss in Vietnam and the scandal of Watergate. We were nothing but trouble for the rest of the world, we were consuming all the resources that belonged rightfully to others, and we were always sticking our nose in where it didn’t belong. We were a nation of undeserving bigots, and everyone hated us.

Then Ronald Wilson Reagan said that none of that was true. We were America – the “shining city on the hill” that other peoples looked to with hope. Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher said things could be better and should be…and people believed. A dockworker named Lech Walesa bravely defied the Communist Polish government and became the first President of a free Poland. It started in 1980, just about the same time as the Presidential election here. The day of Reagan’s inauguration the Iranian government returned American hostages held for 444 days. Gradually, the sun came back up on America.

George H.W. Bush was a good man, but lacked the vision of Reagan. Soon the country knew it, but the changes set in motion during the Reagan years were beginning to bear fruit. We lost our way, of course, and elected a charismatic but irresponsible President. (I won’t even get into the influence of Ross Perot’s third-party run.) Two years later people were beginning to see their folly, and the first House Republican majority in decades was presided over by…Newt Gingrich.

Is he the perfect candidate? Of course not? Will he be able to deliver? That remains to be seen. I just think that he has seen the influence of visionaries and charlatans close up, and he has chosen the less-safe plan. Do we want to continue down the path of decline Obama has put us on? Do we want a competent executive running the country? Or do we want someone with vision to inspire us, to urge us to be better than we already were, to be the inspiration ourselves for the rest of the world?

No, we belittle a man for saying he believes we could be back on the moon in nine years. The first time, with computer technology far less than what we have in our cell phones, we did it in less time than that…from a standing start, after a President challenged us to do it “because it is hard.” Today, we could do it in six. I truly believe that. I hope others do as well.

The power of belief is stronger than we know. If we really think about it, it’s all we’ve had as an edge – a belief we were a unique people, and we had the freedom to do what we set out to. The freedom we enjoyed helped create the optimism and “can-do” attitude that Americans once had in large numbers, and that was rekindled in the 1980s. It can be done again, but it is far easier to do when we have a leader who believes in us, and in American exceptionalism.


My grudging support for Newt Gingrich

January 27, 2012

Let me start by saying I’m not happy with either of the frontrunners in the Republican primaries. I think they have been spending too much time playing gotcha with each other when they should be focusing on the issues. One of the best reasons for having all these debates is that more of the public is exposed to ideas about government other than what the current Administration want us to hear. That’s why even having Ron Paul in the debates is good. (I’m not sure I believe I said that.)

But I’ve not watched even one of the debates. I knew from the outset that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich had the wrong idea about this, or their handlers did. Instead of trying to show us the differences in philosophy between them, they have focused too much on tearing each other down. All this does is breed mistrust in the public about the character of both men – and provide the Obama team with a great collection of sound bites for the summer and fall. (And he has the hundreds of millions of dollars to get them out there.)

That said, I have to say that Newt seems to have a vision for the future of America that Mitt doesn’t show. The other day Newt did a speech in Cocoa Beach, Florida. It could be said that he was pandering to a group that is facing high unemployment – the space launch infrastructure industry. Sure, many of those jobs are going away, or have already. (Although NASA cut a deal with the United Launch Alliance that saved some.) But I think he took the opportunity to use the location to talk about something that he really does believe in – space exploration. The boldness of saying that we should have a lunar colony by the end of his second term – nine years from now – is not “typical Newt craziness.” The only reason the development of new hardware for space flight is taking so long right now is because the amount of money available to hire the people needed to do the work is so limited. An Apollo-style push may not be in the cards, but it’s not needed; just a larger, and consistent amount of money. (During the Apollo push, about 4% of the Federal budget was devoted to space exploration; today it’s about 0.6%!)

Am I being a hypocrite by saying the government should spend more money on space, while advocating as I do for reduced government and lower taxes? The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s not just how much money we spend but where we spend it.

Let’s look at the Department of Education for a minute. Yes, I believe we don’t need it at all, and that education should be a responsibility of the several states. It’s not constitutional and it has proven to be of nearly no help in providing a better education for the students of the US. The budget for the US Department of Education for FY2012 is somewhere around $ 68 billion…NASA gets about $ 18 billion on a good day. Let’s just cut the DepEd to 50% – give ’em $ 35 billion, rounded up. Then give another $ 6 billion to NASA specifically for manned space flight and lunar colonization. That would increase the budget of NASA’s  space exploration division to  250% of what it is today. (It’s about $ 4 billion today; another $ 4 billion goes to maintenance of the ISS.)

It might even inspire students to learn subjects that are used in technical fields like engineering and physics, just like it did in the 1960s. It might provide more positive benefits to education than the Department of Education does…but don’t you just hate intangibles like “inspiration”?

I’ve not heard another Presidential candidate, including the Present Occupant of the White House, say anything positive or inspiring about space exploration.

Yep, it’s my pet issue. Everybody has one, right? Well, it’s mine, and I’ll vote for the candidate I believe will do the best for my pet issue. I just wish it was more people’s pet issue.


Apollo 1, in memoriam.1/27/67.

January 27, 2012

Today is the anniversary of the Apollo 1 (or Apollo/Saturn 204) fire. We need to remember the sacrifices of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. While it shouldn’t have ever happened, this fire was a horrible wake-up call at the time for NASA and North American Aviation, prime contractor for the Command Module. It’s hard to believe today with our paralyzing fear of failure that at one time we were in a headlong rush into space. In this case it resulted in a Block I spacecraft that had a myriad of problems. It shouldn’t have required a loss of life, but the Block II spacecraft that ultimately went to the moon was a far better (and safer) machine.

Click here for the Apollo I Memorial Foundation.


Help! My iPhone mic doesn’t work!

January 25, 2012

First of all, yep, the short version of microphone is “mic,” pronounced like the man’s name, “Mike.” There, now you can sound hip.

My iPhone 4 microphone suddenly stopped working last week. The thing is, it worked for audio recording but not on the phone. I plugged in a headset and the mic didn’t work there, either, so it wasn’t a hardware issue. I found this solution on Daniel Silva’s blog. I tried that. No luck. Crap…time to go see the Genius guys at the Apple Store.

Which I did on Saturday. Intrepid Apple Genius guy (and one of my former students) Jeff Y. found the problem in a minute. Go to Settings > General > Reset and choose “Reset network settings” and the phone will find AT&T again and fix it. I don’t know if Verizon phones have the same problem. Jeff seemed to indicate this is a fairly common problem, so I figured I would post it here for others who have the same problem.

It makes me happy. The feeling that my phone was not working was scarier than I expected.


Mercury and Gemini imagery

January 20, 2012

Staff at the Johnson Space Center, in cooperation with the Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration, have scanned in hundreds of photos from the Mercury and Gemini mission in the 1960s. The images are available online at the March To The Moon Image Gallery. The images were generally taken with stock and specially-modified Hasselblad cameras. It looks as if they plan to post Apollo images as well.

They didn’t just scan the images, they processed them as well. They are clearer than they ever were. The images are available for download in three sizes of jpegs and in the raw versions. Here’s an example of the smaller version, from Gemini XII:

Buzz Aldrin, standing up with the hatch open, in Gemini XII (image credit: NASA/JSC/Arizona State University)

This particular image comes from the Gemini XII mission, which took place in November of 1966. Jim Lovell (later of Apollo 8 and 13 fame) and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11) practiced rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle. They were supposed to use the Agena’s engine to boost the mated vehicles to a higher orbit, but the Agena developed a problem and that part of the mission couldn’t be completed. Aldrin did three spacewalks, and the re-entry of the capsule was accomplished using an automated system.

Buzz Aldrin is an interesting case in many ways. Related to this mission, he was considered the orbital rendezvous expert in NASA, having written his doctoral dissertation for MIT on rendezvous techniques. He was selected in the third round of astronaut selections, the first in which he was eligible – he was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, but never a test pilot. (All of the members of first two groups of astronauts had test pilot experience.)

Anyway, the imagery is gorgeous, especially for being taken under the conditions of the beginnings of manned space flight. I look forward to the addition of the Apollo images!


You mean I DIDN’T invent the term “monkey-fish”?

January 20, 2012

According to this blog, there have been sightings of Japanese mermen called “monkey-fish” for years. To quote Johnny Carson, “I did not know that.” I’d put the pictures on here but they are too ugly. They look like a fish up a monkey’s butt.

I guess I can’t continue to refer to my granddaughters as monkeyfish anymore. They are agile, and they do like to swim. Oh well. I wouldn’t want them to think I was referring to them like this.


Retro-space imagery of what might have been

January 15, 2012

The novel I wrote two years ago that takes place in the alternate universe of the Domination of the Draka will be available on the interweebs soon. It’s sort of an alternate-universe take on the early days of the US experimental jet and space vehicles that flew out of Edwards Air Force Base in the 1950s and 1960s – sort of an alternate “The Right Stuff.”

It needs a cover, like all novels. About a year ago I acquired a resin limited-run model kit from Fantastic Plastic that was a speculative look at what might have been if the X-15 rocket plane program had continued into the late 1960s. The kit of the X-15-D was mastered by Scott Lowther, editor/publisher and primary author of the Aerospace Projects Review and one of the authorities on concept aircraft and spacecraft. It was cast by BLAP Models and included decals by JBOT, both legends in the garage-kit space model kit business.

The kit was beautifully done, both in design and in execution. It was pretty a pretty simple build, especially because I didn’t want to include landing gear. Instead, I filled in the landing gear wells before painting.

I had in mind that the “real” concept spaceplane of 1967, the X-15-D, could become my X-14 Demon of 1953 in my book. The Demon was described as a single-seat suborbital spaceplane, sort of a super-X-15 with a scramjet chamber as well as rocket engines. The look of the X-15-D fit the description pretty well, even though I had originally envisioned the Demon about six or seven years ago without knowing about the design for an X-15 follow-on. (This is not that surprising. In The Stone Dogs, the third Draka novel, author S.M. Stirling sets forth a timeline of technological development and history that has the US and the Draka both getting men into orbit in the late 1950s – but using spaceplanes, not disintegrating totem poles.)

I had to make a couple of changes. First, the X-15 was covered in Iconel-X, a very temperature-resistant nickel-based alloy, and it was usually painted black. (On one flight it was coated in a heat-shedding ablative coating that was bright pink; the pilots refused to fly a pink airplane so white paint was applied over the coating before flight.) The Demon’s skin was made of a cermet, a ceramic-metallic composite material that had a rather unusual origin – you’ll have to read the book! Anyway, the cermet wouldn’t look purely metallic, or purely flat black, so I painted it black and dusted it with silver and blue shades to give it a hint of a different color.

I left off the NASA markings and a few of the others that I felt were out of scale with what I imagined the plane to be. (There is no NASA in the Drakaverse.) Otherwise, it’s Lowther’s airplane – I made no changes in the design. I ended up with this:

I hope I did Scott and the folks justice in building this model. It’s a cool design. I can’t just put the plane on the cover like this, though – I wanted to make it look realistic, as if it was in flight. I have very little of a real artistic hand, but I started fooling with a few tools and came up with a few possibilities. These are probably not what will eventually make the cover, but they are a start as I learn the software.  I used a masking plug-in for Photoshop called Topaz ReMask to clip the plane out of the image, then composited with various images taken from high-altitude aircraft and balloons. Then I used a nifty little tool called Neatberry PhotoStyler to create some “vintage” photos of the plane in flight.

Over California

At apogee

Black and white is stylish, right?

Over a certain place in Nevada that doesn't exist

I don’t quite have it to the point where the model doesn’t look like a model, yet. A couple of these backgrounds were shot from orbital altitude, and the Demon wasn’t supposed to be able to go into orbit…that wouldn’t be for a few years yet. I’m working on it, and it’s been great fun. I highly recommend these tools, along with Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, as software even an untrained person like me can use.

You can say you saw the Demon first!

(And by the way, the Demon was flown in the book by Jack Ridley, a test pilot and engineer who was a real person and a great pilot. He’s the guy who gave Chuck Yeager the stick of Beeman’s gum (and the broom handle) before Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1 in real life! Check out Yeager’s autobiography for more information.)


It’s a great idea – a flying model SpaceX rocket!

January 9, 2012

Falcon 9 flying model (with detachable clear fins needed for flying)

Back in the heyday of the Space Race in the 1960s, the major model kit manufacturers sold kits of the real space vehicles for Baby Boomer space fans. It was also the high-growth period for flying model rockets, with Estes Industries leading the industry, but with several other manufacturers developing interesting kits as well.

The major model kit manufacturers from around the world have produced kits of American and Russian space vehicles ever since. This piece isn’t about that, but about how SpaceX is trying to rekindle that kind of excitement with this generation by selling a flying model rocket kit of their flagship launcher/cargo capsule combo, the Falcon 9/Dragon vehicle. They were smart in marketing it on Amazon, and the box proudly proclaims, “Made in the USA.” The real SpaceX vehicle is all-US designed and built from the ground up. (Just as a comparison, the Japanese  H-1 launcher used a  licensed version of the US-designed Delta, and the US Atlas 5 uses the Russian-built RD-180 engine.)

SpaceX is combining its second and third orbital test flights of the Falcon 9/Dragon into one mission, scheduled to launch on February 7 of this year. If successful, the Dragon will rendezvous with the ISS and will be captured with the robotic arm, then docked with the ISS.

CGI image of the Dragon berthed at the ISS

If this flight is successful, commercial flights to the ISS could begin during 2012. The man-rated version of the Dragon is scheduled to be ready for flight in 2015.

I hope selling a flying model of the Falcon will help bring more interest in SpaceX in particular and commercial space in general. It’s not as “interesting looking” as the Mercury/Atlas or Saturn V models of yesteryear, but it’s real, and it’s flying. I hope a commercial model company will offer a plastic static-display kit of the Dragon…but unfortunately it will probably be made by a foreign company if at all. Revell/Monogram is the last of the big model companies in the US. (Although I wouldn’t discount Moebius Models or Polar Lights/Round 2 – both are smaller companies that have been very aggressive in science fiction subjects.

Boxtop art for the Revell Mercury-Atlas - it came with a full launcher as well!

The art from the 1960s Revell 1/96 Apollo/Saturn V kit - the completed model is over 3 feet tall!

By the way, the image above is from this site – check the price – $ 420!

Want to fly a 1/100 scale Apollo Saturn? Get the one below from this site.

Estes is still in the business of flying rockets and is the major manufacturer of model rocket engines.

I just received a copy of the Falcon/Dragon model. One of these days I’ll build it and post some pictures here! UPDATE 1-20-2012: I’ve received the kit and the quality of the kit and instructions is outstanding. The lower section of the body and the Dragon capsule are ABS plastic, and the clear fins are polycarbonate, so they should handle plenty of rough landings. The body tube is completely enclosed in a pre-printed self-adhesive paper wrap, which means there is no painting needed and it should strengthen the body tube besides. There is a wrap for the Dragon capsule as well. The instructions are great – someone 12-14 years old with no previous experience building a model rocket should have no problem with this, and assembly should only take a few hours. I’ll add some photos soon. I highly recommend this!


This may help other Rush Limbaugh iTunes podcast subscribers

January 2, 2012

Thomas Sowell, one of the leading economists of our generation.

I’m one of those folks who finds listening to radio programs on the radio tedious. When there is less than 35 minutes of programming per hour, the rest commercials, traffic updates, PSAs, news at the top and bottom of the hour, etc., unless I’m actually engaged in something else and have it in the background it annoys me. I know that without the advertising we’d all be stuck with Sirius or something like it – I get it – but the same commercial six times in a hour? Really? And I generally like WLS, the AM station in Chicago that leans right.

So anyway, I listen to Rush on the podcasts through iTunes. (Of course I’m a Rush 24/7 subscriber. Aren’t you?) I listen to Mark Levin that way, too. That way, if either of them gets stuck on a rant and I’m not prepared for a rant that day (especially Levin),or they are on the same topic for the tenth day in a row, I can choose to skip them.Or if they are away on vacation and I’m not particularly excited about hearing the guest hosts. (I like what Mark Steyn says, but he always sounds nervous on the radio, and it makes me nervous to hear him!)

Because of this, sometimes I don’t listen or download podcasts for a week or more. Then iTunes gives me the gray exclamation point to the left of the podcast name and stops updating the podcasts. Clicking on it and choosing “Yes” should allow the updating to begin again. It used to. Now, it doesn’t.

It turns out that you have to click the Refresh button on the bottom of the iTunes window afterwards. Then it begins to update. I know it didn’t used to be this way. It’s apparently a feature, not a bug. You can find that in the Premiere Networks facs if you are a subscriber.

Anyway, just a note if you, too, want to hear Walter E. Williams interview Thomas Sowell about his new book, “The Thomas Sowell Reader.” Two brilliant economists conversing! I heard some of it on the radio that day (Friday, December 30) and they were fun and enlightening!

Thomas Sowell’s website
Walter E. Williams’ website