Archive for June, 2012


Scratchbuilding the “Princess Cecile’ – continued

June 28, 2012

My scratchbuilding project, the Princess Cecile corvette from David Drake’s “Lt. Leary” series of military science fiction novels, has been patiently sitting in a plastic box for two years while I dealt with other things. I haven’t forgotten it, and I did a little work in the meantime, but not enough to warrant a post. Finally, it’s moving again!

The first thing I did was work on the internal layout of the main cargo door opening on C deck. (The number of decks changed a bit throughout the novels; I had to assume the ship has five decks as fitting in the hull best. This door opens from the bottom and serves as a landing platform for small aircars and as the primary access for personnel and equipment into the ship. Cleverly, however, Drake never really gives much of a description of any of the decks and spaces in the ship! (I may be referring to this cargo door incorrectly…I don’t have the books at hand and I’ll have to look it up later!)

I sort of semi-arbitrarily decided on a length for the space and cut a hole in the hull with a drill and Dremel tool.

Cargo hold opening for deck C

Then I sort of roughed in some panels and the hatch going to the ramp to the other decks. (In military starships in the RCN series, spiral ramps take the place of ladders or stairways; the logic is that if the ship’s hull flexes due to damage incurred in combat, the ramps are still accessible even if they are bent.) I drew it on the Mac using a drawing program and printed the plans out on paper, then glued them to thin plastic sheet and trimmed them a bit to fit the opening I cut in the hull.

Deck C cargo hold mockup (attached to bulkhead section) and beginnings of a High Drive motor

This test version was more for fit and visibility than anything. I don’t know if I will use any printed pieces in the final version or not, yet.

In the image above you can see the beginnings of a design for a “High Drive” motor on the left. In the universe of the RCN, the High Drive motors use matter-antimatter annihilation to power the ships in space. Except for one passing mention of “the lumps” of abandoned High Drive motors, I don’t recall any descriptions of the motors in the books. So…I get to make it up!

All I really need to know is (a) they are mounted on the outriggers, and (b) they mix matter and antimatter. I assume they use magnetic fields to manipulate the antimatter (anti-deuterium?) and manage the reaction, rather than just artistic license and good intentions. So I need something that looks like it has some big frackin’ magnets! We’ll see where this goes. The first design I came up with looked really stupid. Because the construction of the starships is such an odd mixture of low-tech and very high-tech – a steel hull, which can be patched and repaired by the crew on just about any planet, but a way to manufacture antimatter at need! – I’m going for a sort of low-tech, almost steampunk (“Teslapunk?”) look. So…more on these motors in another post.

Two years ago I made a “thruster cluster” – a set of four rocket engine nozzles on a spherical mount. It looks a bit oversized, but I assume the ship won’t have a lot of them. The ship takes off and lands vertically, with acceleration rarely over 1 G, so the ship isn’t very streamlined. If it passed through an atmosphere very fast it would tear the rigging right off the hull. It won’t have a bunch of reaction thrusters built into the hull, because it doesn’t need the streamlining and it makes more sense to put them where they can be worked on more easily.

Here’s the master, made from a wooden bead and rocket nozzles left over from building my Fantastic Plastic von Braun Ferry Rocket.

“Thruster cluster” master

It was time to see if the Micro-Mark resin and rubber were any good after sitting on the shelf for a few years. Turns out, both of them still worked! I built a box using Legos (hat tip FineScale Modeler magazine) and seated the master in a quarter-inch layer of clay, then poured the first layer of rubber. I was concerned that if I poured the resin in from the center it wouldn’t make it to the ends of the nozzles, so before I poured the top half of the mold I inserted little pieces of aluminum wire into the bottom half at the nozzle ends. The plan was for air bubbles to vent through the resulting holes.

The two-part mold for the thrusters

I hadn’t made a mold in over two years, and I don’t have a lot of mold-making experience, but this morning I poured the first copy and crossed my fingers.

Cluster – first attempt at a copy

You can see the pins on the ends of the nozzles. Before photographing this with my iPhone, I just cleaned off a little flash from around the edges. The thing will take some cleanup, but there is only one big bubble to fix, at the very end of one nozzle. I figure I need either four or six of these, so I will continue to pour some and see what I get. I was just happy the resin made it through the mold at all!

So…baby steps. I thin I will build this as a diorama, with the ship in refit before going back out into space on another adventure, sitting in the water in Harbor Three on Cinnabar. That way I can have some folks moving in and out, loading supplies and equipment, maybe loading a missile, and maybe even with one mast extended for sail repairs. It will be a challenge not only because of the scratchbuilding, but resin water, the quay, and a bunch of 1:200 scale figures to modify! (Adele Mundy is the one on the gangplank, looking like she’s going to fall off!)

UPDATE: I quickly scanned through two of the books – “Lt. Leary Commanding” and “The Far Side Of The Stars” – and the terms used for this particular opening in the ship was referred to as the “main hatch” or “entry compartment.” I’m sure that someplace there is more information, or the terminology changes from book to book. I’ll continue to dig, because now it bothers me!

I also found that in the second book in the series, “Lt. Leary Commanding,” the High Drive motor(s) are described as firing from a single point instead of from several separated locations. I think that’s the only place where the High Drive is said to be a single point. I seem to recall that in the others the High Drive motors are attached to the outriggers.

I’ve pondered the thruster clusters since I made the original post a couple of days ago, while I was out of town. I don’t recall thrusters really described in detail anywhere, but I recall they were mentioned a couple of times. I still don’t know if these are oversized. Each nozzle is almost as tall as a man! A warship has to maneuver quickly, however, so maybe the maneuvering thrusters would be oversized. Anyway, I think I will redo the molds. I may even try making two open-faced molds, casting the halves of the thrusters separately and then putting them together. I’d like to get a little cleaner castings if I could, and maybe that will help. The air-venting holes worked pretty well, but not flawlessly. I don’t know that I could get any better results with that mold at my current level of experience. Once I’ve tried the other mold, I’ll report on it.


Jake Tapper has seen Aaron Sorkin’s new show, and he didn’t like it…

June 22, 2012

Jake Tapper is the ABC News Senior White House Correspondent. He has been one of the few in the While House press corps to ask serious questions instead of sucking up to the press secretary as he spoons out the disinformation week after week. So, I have more than a little respect for him.

I have a weird love-hate relationship with Aaron Sorkin’s work. I’ve not seen his Facebook movie, but I watched all of “The West Wing” and “Sports Night” and even the few episodes of “Studio 60” that made it to air. I liked “A Few Good Men” and I liked a lot about “An American President,” even if I didn’t like the politics (and as I got older the whole plot about the President’s girlfriend sleeping over at the White House made me more uncomfortable).

I felt Sorkin’s handling of liberal and conservative sides of issues in “The West Wing” was more even-handed than I ever expected. Sometimes he actually wrote something that got me to think. And his writing style was captivating. Not so much the walk-and-talk dialogs that became his trademark, but the rapid-fire exchanges between characters that always left me wishing I could be that clever that fast. (Of course, the characters only are because Sorkin and his writers spent hours and hours writing that kind of dialog, but you know what I mean.) Once Sorkin had fallen out of favor with NBC and he was taken off the show, I felt the dialog lost its sparkle and the show lurched harder left.

Anyway, when I saw HBO had a new Sorkin show coming out, another of his “behind the scenes” ideas, I sort of looked forward to it. I didn’t like the promo I saw of it…but I couldn’t separate if I really didn’t like the promo or just Jeff Daniels, who has never been one of my favorite actors.

Jake Tapper just posted a review on the website for The New Republic and it makes me sad. I was hoping it would be a good show, at least somewhat even-handed politically. But from the way Tapper tells it, we’re going to get more conservative-bashing instead. If I want that I can look for Nancy Pelosi speeches on YouTube.

I may still watch it, just to see if I perceive it differently. But if Tapper thinks it’s partisan, I tend to believe him. Oh, well. Back to reruns of “NCIS” for me, I guess.


Beautiful video of an Atlas 5 launch

June 22, 2012

I’ve been critical of United Launch Alliance, not because of the quality of their work but because of what I perceive as a sweetheart deal with NASA and the Federal Government in general that they were able to wrangle by spinning off the Boeing and Lockheed Martin space launch units into one “joint venture.” However, I have to say that they have this launch thing down. This video is a montage of an Atlas 5 launch last week of a National Reconnaissance Office classified satellite. It doesn’t have the solid strap-on boosters, so it doesn’t have the jump off the pad like the one I saw when we were in Orlando in May. Instead, it has one of those graceful, smooth liftoffs that give you time to appreciate what the machine can do. I wish I had been there to see it! I did get to see it on a live streaming video feed on Spaceflight Now. Check them out. They do the best job of documenting current space flight that I’ve seen on the web. The YouTube video was put together by ULA.


Re “Smash,” Chinese imported spaceships, and Lunar Dragons

June 18, 2012

Comments on a bunch of topics, since I haven’t had time to weigh in and I’m sure you all are concerned about that…

I didn’t continue reviewing/commenting on “Smash” because I found I had nothing to say that I already hadn’t. The crisis of the ending of the show – that is,  in the musical, “Bombshell” – was resolved in the very last scene of the last episode of the season. (Or, almost the last scene, but this downward Ivy spiral has been done many times before, and better.)

Actually, the whole problem the characters had with finding a suitable ending for the show is more the kind of thing I had hoped to see. I hope real-life Broadway composers (most of whom do not arrange their own music for the stage) don’t have to get a closing number done at the very last moment, orchestrate it, and get it to the pit before the finale! Some of that you could almost do with Finale or Sibelius, but the musicians and conductor wouldn’t like it. Nor would the star, who is trying to tie the whole show up in a bow and needs to be very expressive.

Anyway, suspend your belief and go with it. The number works pretty well, I think, for finding a way to deal with the fact that Marilyn dies at the end. The show seems to demand a “down” ending, but an uplifting message for the audience seems to be a satisfying conclusion to me.

Also, the scene in the church was delightful.

Enough of “Smash.” Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, did a victory lap at SpaceX in Hawthorne last week. I hope he told them, “Hey, you guys have work because we are spineless weasels and can’t work with Congress.” Because, of course, it’s the truth.

If NASA doesn’t like Dragon Rider, or Orion, or Liberty aka Orion composite-materials version, I suppose we could make a deal with the Chinese. They seem to be launching people successfully. And we buy all kinds of other stuff from China, so no worries, right? Probably doesn’t even take a lot of extra import paperwork. Ship it in a container labeled, “Apple iPhone 5,” or something. Of course, the operating manual will be in industrial-strength Chinglish.

And could you launch a Chinese Shenhzou on a Delta rocket? The Delta IV is supposed to be able to handle payloads of 8600 to 22,000 kg. The Chinese vehicle is listed as weighing 7,840 kg, so it should be possible to get it into orbit on a Delta, or without question on an Atlas.  (Dirty little secret – the Falcon 9 could launch it as well!)

I got to thinking today that Elon Musk says he wants to go to Mars.According to the video SpaceX ran last year, the Dragon Rider escape engines are powerful enough to land on Mars and apparently they think it would be able to take off again. That means landing one on the Moon should be easy, right? And the cargo version has shown its maneuverability already so maybe they could land one of those on the moon for extra supplies, then a manned mission could be a land nearby. If that one Dragon couldn’t handle enough fuel for the liftoff again and the burn to get out of Lunar orbit, imitate Apollo by sending two and only bringing one back, the one that had remained in Lunar orbit while the crew are down exploring. I would think the trunk could be modified into an equivalent of the Apollo service module, or the extended second stage of the Falcon Heavy might be able to do the translunar injection like the S-IVB, then only send three or four crew instead of the seven that is supposed to be the max capacity for Dragon Rider. Lighter vehicle, fewer consumables, most propellant, easier to get out of Lunar orbit.

You know what? They could do this by 2019, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

I can dream.


Nanny state goes wild!

June 14, 2012

Over on Keep Americans Free I talk about the insidiousness of restriction of personal freedoms, starting with Bloomberg’s soda pop restrictions. I invite you to read it.

This kind of stuff begins small, and relatively silly, but if we ignore it the Left will continue to restrict our choices in all sorts of ways until we have no choices left. Don’t believe me?


RIP Ray Bradbury

June 6, 2012

I just heard that Ray Bradbury passed away today, at the age of 91. He was one of the first four science fiction authors I read when I was young, along with Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

From RAH I learned how to conduct myself as a  human being, from Asimov to think far into the future, from Clarke the excitement of what could happen in my lifetime, and from Bradbury – that the future would not be without poetry. He was the less technical of those four by far, but the one with the best gift for words; his writing was less about the science and more about the wonder. He was less my favorite when I was in my “extremely technical” phase, but later I came to appreciate his work far more.

Much later, of course, I learned to love Harlan Ellison’s work, but Harlan is…something else. Perhaps Ellison is sort of the anti-Bradbury, in a good way!

Anyway, I’m sorry to hear of his passing. Now all of those big four are gone. I hope, for him, that “Mars is Heaven.” I’m sure he would like to be there, or in his beloved Waukegan of his childhood.


So this is the guy who controls our space program?

June 6, 2012

Congresscritter Frank R. Wolf, R-Va, is the chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee. Yep, a double-hyphen subcommittee. He put out a statement yesterday telling us all he has reached an “understanding” with Charles “Not So” Bolden, NASA Administrator, as to how the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) program will proceed.

You might recall – and you probably won’t – that here was noise from House Republicans that NASA was putting its eggs in too many baskets, and that it should pick one company to fund for a commercially-run crewed vehicle. Apparently the “understanding” between the Honorable Mr. Wolf and Mr. Bolden is that NASA will fund two, to “2.5” awards. That means two companies will get the full award amount, and one will get a “partial” award.

Now, I was pretty happy with the results of COTS, which was the program that helped fund the Dragon cargo vehicle, but one of the reasons for that was because NASA provided “seed money” to several companies through that program. SpaceX got something flying first. Orbital Sciences is going to be flying soon, I hope, but they are out of the next stage of the fight – they are concentrating on the cargo business, not on the passenger craft.

There are four competitors for the CCiCAP funds: SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada. I’m guessing Blue Origin is out of the running, pretty much. They have been moving very slowly, and are trying to develop one vehicle for orbital missions and another for suborbital commercial flights. (The suborbital part of the business is probably going to go to Virgin Galactic first. They should be flying passengers within a year.)

Sierra Nevada is bending tin and has a vehicle mostly completed. It’s a bit more of a long shot, in that it’s a lifting body. It doesn’t require a new booster – they plan to use an Atlas 5. Likewise, Boeing’s capsule-based design will be Atlas 5-launched. Blue Origin is trying to build a new booster as well as a vehicle, but they have proceeded in secrecy far more than the other companies.

The Liberty launch system, which is a joint Lockheed/Astrium/ATK vehicle that looks like the old Ares design, is a long shot in the CCiCAP race. While the ATK solid first stage is pretty much built, being based on a 5-segment of the Shuttle solid booster, the second stage needs to have the Vulcan engine adjusted for vacuum flight and for restarts in flight. The capsule is a lot like the Orion that Lockheed is building for NASA already, but with a composite structure instead of Orion’s more conventional metallic structure. One is under construction, but the whole system will probably not be flying before the Boeing, Sierra Nevada or SpaceX vehicles.

So two questions: first, who gets the money? My bet is on Boeing (because the government loooooves Boeing and they have a track record of building stuff that works) and SpaceX (because they have momentum as as well as a smart design and what looks like good engineering). Maybe Sierra will get the half-award. I just would be very surprised if SpaceX gets bumped, and Boeing has the inside track. That’s my guess.

The second,and bigger question is this: Why is one man able to dictate the course of our space program? And that man is a politician? Back when it looked like Wernher von Braun was running our space program in the 1960s at least it was being run by a guy with skills and vision. This Wolf dude – what does he bring to the party? He seems, from the press release I referenced above, to be more of a nay-sayer. Sure, he wants to make sure the vehicle is safe. Don’t we all? But what qualifications does he have? Will he do so by hamstringing the companies with a legion of inspectors? That’s the government way. The lack of so much elbow-jiggling was what made it possible for SpaceX to achieve what it has for the amount it cost.

I think this statement is more CYA than anything else. He doesn’t want a Challenger-type failure on his watch. It might, Heaven forbid, affect his ability to be re-elected. (I hope you heard the sarcasm.)

And another thing: why does he get to make these decisions? Aren’t there other members of the subcommittee? And it’s a subcommittee, for God’s sake! He should be the first step in setting this appropriation, but not the sole arbiter. It sure sounds from the press release as though he is completely in control.

I’m not happy with the way the politicians are fooling with this. Again, the space program is considered by Congress as some kind of Federal jobs program and just another way for congresscritters to distribute largesse. Sigh.


It wasn’t even close

June 5, 2012

As I write this, Fox News is reporting that, with 73% of precincts reporting, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is ahead 56 – 43 in the recall election. Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch also is winning with about the same percentages.

The first thing I read was “Walker received a great deal of money from outside the state.” That’s because the Democratic National Committee, and, both saw weeks ago that it was a losing cause and pulled their support of Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett – not because there was some national Republican conspiracy. (Oh that it would be so!)

I have to do some research about exactly what Gov. Walker has accomplished. More later. I think it was more telling that 69% of the people polled said that they believed a recall effort should only be for malfeasance, or not at all. That was probably more important than policy issues.



So what does the SpaceX COTS-2 flight really mean?

June 1, 2012

As those of you who have read my previous posts know, I’ve been a fan of SpaceX for a long time. I like the audacity of Elon Musk’s company, which has forged ahead and made extremely intelligent engineering decisions along the way. They have “stood on the shoulders of giants,” leveraging all that they could learn from both the US and Russian space vehicles that came before.

For example, the Falcon 9 uses more, smaller engines, rather than a couple of larger, higher-pressure engines. While there is a weight penalty, it also gives enough margin that the vehicle could continue the mission even with the loss of an engine. They also benefit of economy of scale, building more engines and therefore lowering the cost of each unit. The same engines will be used in the Falcon Heavy – 27 of them in the first stage – and a modified version is used in the second stage as well. Compare this to the Russian generic launcher, which has a pedigree going back to its ICBM roots in the 1950s. The technology of that time and place didn’t allow for the kinds of engines that could be built in the US. The standard Soyuz booster uses four in the sustainer and four in each of the strap-on liquid boosters.

Soyuz first stage engines

Falcon 9 first stage engines

Critics of the company have pointed out that the development of the Dragon capsule and the Falcon launch vehicles have not been completely funded by the private sector. That’s true, for a very good reason – the US government is a major customer. NASA is spending at least $ 63 million per seat flying crew to the ISS via Russian spacecraft. That’s per seat. If the Falcon 9/DragonRider can fly up to seven people to the ISS – let’s say six, just to make it fair – they could charge $ 350 million per flight and NASA would be getting a bargain! SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said she hopes to fly a DragonRider to the ISS for a cost of $ 140 million – one-third the cost of flying in the Soyuz. (And the DragonRider will be a roomier vehicle, even for seven passengers; the Soyuz is really a two-person vehicle modified to squeeze in three seats.)

But it’s not the technical success or even the reasonable development cost that makes this flight so important. It’s lack of government interference.

During the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years, every piece of each vehicle was meticulously tracked from fabrication to launch. Some of this was quality control, and quality control is very important. Some was research – if components failed, often failures could be traced back to design or fabrication flaws.

But, like every government bureau, the paper-pushers group grew as the group of engineers and researchers declined. The Shuttle was supposed to be refurbished and launched again within 30 days. In real life we were lucky to get two flights per year out of each vehicle. The Thermal Protection System was designed so that the entire surface of the shuttle was a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces of TPS material were individually manufactured to fit a specific location and had to be hand-fit, some of them the size of your hand. This took a huge amount of time, and the material was very fragile. It only took a piece of insulation foam breaking off the External Tank to damage the TPS enough to cause a weakness that caused a catastrophic failure of the vehicle on re-entry.

That whole situation was partly due to the 1970s technology of the vehicle. However, it was never improved. The vehicle received upgrades in electronics – thank God – but the TPS remained essentially unchanged. It took hundreds of hours of manpower to inspect and replace the tiles after each flight.

I expect that a commercial company that had to make a profit, instead of having a “cost-plus” contract with NASA, would have found a way to improve that whole situation. It might have even resulted in improved thermal protection, and we might not have lost an orbiter and a crew. (Don’t tell me ULA is the same thing, because it has a very specific contract with the US government. No one else has such an agreement, and NASA has done everything it can to protect that relationship.)

To continue that example, Dragon uses a one-piece heat shield with large PICA-X tiles (using technology from NASA, actually) instead of an Apollo-style honeycomb shield that requires hundreds of hours of manpower to fabricate – which is exactly what Orion will have. Lower cost of fabrication, improved safety, new technology. Hmm.

One of the reasons the DragonRider is taking so long is that NASA has to sign off on a lot of design elements. That’s why SpaceX hired former Shuttle astronauts – not just to lend their experience to the design process, but to improve credibility with NASA. Nothing from NASA ever comes without strings!

I wonder how much oversight NASA has over the Soyuz vehicles that take our astronauts to orbit…

So the successes SpaceX has enjoyed so far are due to smart design, good quality fabrication, good management, and less interference from government.

Hmm. Really? Maybe getting bureaucrats out of the way actually does may business more successful. Who knew?