Archive for July, 2012


For all my Chicago-area friends…the return of the Rob Parton Big Band!

July 29, 2012


My friend Rob Parton, who fronted the best big band in Chicago for years and years, moved to Columbus, Ohio, last year. He teaches at Capital University now. His move meant the Rob Parton Big Band no longer performed regularly. In fact, the last time I was there was when my high school band performed with them at FitzGerald’s last year, and the amazing tenor saxophonist  Mark Colby ran the band because Rob couldn’t get back from Columbus for the gig.

I just found out that Rob will get the band back together on August 8 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. If you are in the Chicago area, you should come out and hear them. The band is made up of some of the absolute best jazz players in Chicago – in fact, some of the best in the country! And check out their recordings!


Happy Moon Day!

July 20, 2012

I almost forgot! Here’s some of the restored video of the Apollo 11 flight that put Neil and Buzz on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

I watched Armstrong’s first steps on a little black and white TV (not that it mattered), outside, at Farragut State Park in northern Idaho. I was a participant in the Boy Scout Jamboree that week. The whole thing was kind of surreal, somehow…knowing I was far from home, but these guys were…as alone as you could be. No, Mike Collins, in orbit, was as alone as could be. There has been a lot of talk about the close thing the landing actually was, before the LEM ran out of fuel, but what was it like to be in orbit in Columbia?

At the time I thought we were living in the future. Looking back, I am amazed at what was accomplished without all the high-tech enhancements we have today. Mini mp3 players have more computing power today than Apollo had!

Here’s to you, Neil, Buzz and Mike; and to everyone who was a part of that national dream given form.


Chinese Heavy-Lift Moon Rocket Designs

July 18, 2012



According to this article at, the Chinese are considering two possible super-heavy launch vehicles. Both are considered to have first stages in the 11 million pound thrust class, considerably higher than the 7.5 million pounds of thrust of the Saturn V. They are in the same size class as the ill-fated Soviet N-1 moon rocket, which suffered four spectacular failures – the last destroying not just the rocket but the launch pad as well – before the Soviets abandoned their quest for the moon in 1972.

“Option A” uses LOX/kerosene engines in the first stage, with liquid-fueled strap on boosters. “Option B” uses LOX/liquid hydrogen to power the first stage, but with solid rocket strap on boosters. China has very little experience with man-rated solid boosters, unlike the US, which has used them for decades.

While the thrust of the first stage is higher than the planned US SLS, the payload is not that much greater. The US rocket will burn LOX/hydrogen, with solid or possibly liquid-fueled boosters.

What I don’t get about both the US and Chinese designs is that Russia has shown us that mass production produces increased reliability, and probably, reduced cost. (Why do we need a demonstration of what should be basic American manufacturing principles, anyway?) Is it really worth the huge development cost to build monster rockets when we could accomplish the same goals with multiple launches of smaller rockets?

This was the fundamental flaw with the Apollo program. It was designed to be a dash to the moon, not a foundation upon which long-term space exploration infrastructure could be built. We’ve spent many billions of dollars and man-hours building the ISS, and we now even have reliable software and hardware that makes autonomous rendezvous and docking possible. Since the 1940s there have been designs – hundreds, probably – that showed how to build a moon mission from components in space. Granted, launching larger pieces of hardware translates into fewer launches, but we don’t ship auto parts across the country using behemoth car carriers…we put ’em in boxes and crates and ship ’em by rail or truck.

ImageGranted, it would be messier than the way it was depicted in Colliers Magazine or the Disney “Man in Space” specials in the 1950s, but we have thousands of man-hours of assembly and work outside of a spaceship now. We didn’t have that experience in the 1960s, and to meet the Kennedy deadline, von Braun and NASA chose the “fast track” moon mission. Today, we could build real moon ships – that could travel from low Earth orbit to the lunar surface, multiple times, and dock at the ISS or a facility nearby. In fact, we could use a Bigelow habitat for the LEO staging area, and maybe even one in lunar orbit and multiples on the lunar surface.



Well, we can dream. can’t we? (Oh, wait, there is that agreement between Bigelow and SpaceX…hmm. Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, eventually. He’s building an entire launch infrastructure so he can do just that.) 



A few words about personal property rights

July 17, 2012

Over on Keep Americans Free I have a new post on personal property rights prompted by Mr. Obama’s lies and half-truths from last weekend. I invite you to read it.

I really need to get back to some constructive work, but the November election looks like it will determine the path of the US for generations. This one is for all the marbles, folks.


More on building the Princess Cecile

July 16, 2012

Those of you who have followed my ramblings as I slowly work on a (mostly) scratchbuilt model of the starship Princess Cecile from David Drake’s Lt. Leary science fiction book series – here’s your next little bit:

The thruster quads I was trying to cast in resin turned out to be a challenge. I tried several different molds, trying to make one as a one-piece casting with the mold in two halves, and as two separate halves poured, sanded flat, and glued together.

In both cases I had problems with air bubbles or voids. Splitting it vertically in two helped a bit, but that still required getting the halves exactly flat and so they would line up when I glued them together. I learned a lot about the behavior of resin and moulding rubber, though!

The more time I spent with these parts, the more I was convinced the quads were just too big. They would scale out to 10 to 12 feet across, nozzle to nozzle. Granted, a warship has to maneuver quickly and so they would need to be larger, most likely, than on a commercial spaceship.

The trend today is that such thrusters would be mainly contained inside the hull of a spacecraft, I guess, if there is such a trend. The thrusters on the SpaceX Dragon vehicle only show the openings of the rocket nozzles.

A test firing of the Draco thruster for the SpaceX Dragon

You can see the thruster openings on the SpaceX Dragon – the four ovals below and to the left of the hatch.

No doubt about it, the Dragon is a well-designed little ship. But she’s not a fighter, and (hopefully) she will never have to take battle damage. The ships of the RCN routinely are repaired during battle by the riggers, who wear armored spacesuits because there’s stuff flying around out there. Drake usually refers to the riggers as needing to repair the rigging and sails so the ship can re-enter the Matrix. The design of the RCN ships was predicated on making them as similar to sailing vessels as possible for narrative purposes, I think.

One other point is that the RCN ships are built on steel hulls and are an interesting combination of high tech and low tech. In one of the books a ship is radically rebuilt on the ground on a mostly uninhabited planet. Just like the sailing ships of Aubrey or Hornblower, sometimes the crew finds it must effect major repairs without the benefit of a shipyard.

So…external thruster quads just sounded like a good idea to me. Here is the Apollo command and service module combo, showing the thruster quads:

See the thruster quads?

Closeup of the Apollo Service Module thruster quad

So…I still wanted them on the exterior of the hull, so they could be repaired or replaced without quite as much danger of explosion. It didn’t make sense to me to have them located inside the hull placing a bunch of small (relatively)  rocket engines where they could be dangerous to the crew, with openings through the hull for the exhaust.

So I made a couple of sort-of tetrahedrons about 3/8 of an inch on a side out of balsa foam. It’s a little too porous, but once I cast some I could sand the sides smooth. I also made a few small rocket engine bells based on the FP von Braun ferry rocket engines. I glued one set together. Here it is, next to the old master:

Test version of the new quad.

The whole thing is less than  3/4 of an inch across. That still makes it about 12 scale feet across, but I think they will look more in-scale and they are about as small as I can make them. I may try making one with the “shoulder” on the engine bells removed. That would make it smaller, but it would also make it far more delicate – the nozzle throat is about 1/16 of an inch!

I’ve not drilled out the engine bells. I should have done that first, with a pin vise. I’ll have to do that on the next set before I attach them.

I think these will give the ship a bit of a “retro” look, which is what I’m going for, anyway. I don’t see the ship as a beautiful, streamlined aerodynamic vehicle – in fact, Drake notes than when entering the atmosphere too fast it is far too easy to tear the rigging right off the hull. This is a ship that does not enter an atmosphere ballistically. It is under power at all times.

So, slow going. One other thought it to somehow create even smaller engine bells that would look more like the Apollo bells. I just don’t know how I would hold them on!


America’s Second Commercial Spaceport

July 9, 2012

XCOR’s Lynx rocketplane

XCOR Aerospace and the Midland Development Corporation announced today that XCOR will build a new Research and Development Headquarters at Midland International Airport, Midland, Texas. Midland is about 330 miles west of Dallas-Fort Worth. A 60,000 s.f. hangar was recently refurbished and XCOR expects to move into it by the fall of 2013. XCOR cited the favorable business climate in Texas as a major reason for locating there.

Midland International has also applied for a Commercial Space Launch Site designation from the FAA. The first commercial spaceport to be certified under that designation was SpacePort America, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic suborbital commercial flights will fly out of Las Cruces. Las Cruces is about 350 miles west of Midland, on the edge of southwestern edge of the historic White Sands missile test range.

XCOR signed a lease for their second production vehicle to Space Expeditions Curacao last September. The company plans to use the vehicle for suborbital commercial flights from the island.

SpaceX received the Commercial Space Launch Site designation for Pad 40, which it leases from the USAF, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2007. SpaceX is also building a facility to launch the Falcon Heavy at Vandenberg AFB in California.

I’ve waited about thirty years to be able to refer to “commercial spaceports” and be talking about real places, and real spacecraft. Now it’s actually happening!


Like God and Robert Heinlein intended…

July 5, 2012

Masten Space Systems in the Mojave is working on vertical takeoff and landing suborbital rockets. Yesterday they flew to 444 meters.

I swear the landing looks like the launch run backward. That’s smooth!

And the post title? EDIT to correct original post: As Dr. Arlan Andrews, Sr.,  has indicated in the comments, it was he who coined the phrase, talking about rockets that landed vertically. My apologies to Dr. Andrews for the misquote. Apparently the June 1993 issue of  ANALOG magazine is still available from one seller, used, on Amazon at this link. In it you will find Dr. Andrews’ article, “Single Stage to Infinity!”


The most awesome thing you will see today!

July 5, 2012

Yep. Ronald Reagan, riding a freakin’ velociraptor!

Credit, and where you can get copies.


Don’t forget that tomorrow is INDEPENDENCE DAY!

July 3, 2012

My annual rant on using the term “the Fourth of July” instead of the name of the holiday. It’s at my other blog. There’s actually history in the post concerning “1812 Overture” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” too.


Scratchbuilding the “Princess Cecile” – the perils of resin casting

July 3, 2012

If you read the previous post on my scratchbuilding project, the Princess Cecile from David Drake’s Lt. Leary/RCN novels, you know that I have been working with resin casting a bit, trying to duplicate my master for the “thruster clusters.”  I have a couple of issues with the design of the thruster clusters yet, including the fact that they are big – not big on the model, but in the 1:200 scale of the model they would be about 15-20 feet across! Each rocket nozzle would be about 5 feet tall. However, the ship is supposed to be 230 feet long and it should displace about 1300 tons, so moving such a massy object would take some pretty big thrusters. In particular, the thrusters on a warship should be oversized compared to a commercial vessel so that they can maneuver quickly in a battle situation. The Sissy must be nimble!

So, I’ve been trying to get better results making resin castings of the master. The first mold I made yielded only far results, with some bubbles in the surface because I was overzealous in using mold release. I also used the wrong mold release agent – stupid! I used the aerosol kind intended for making resin castings, not the liquid stuff used to keep the master from adhering to the master.

I decided I needed to make new masters. I tried making them in the other orientation – with one nozzle pointing down – and making it in two halves that would be poured without putting them together. The problem there was that two thrusters would be made in halves, and the downward-facing one would be hard to pull from the mold. The technical term is undercut, meaning that the bottom of the nozzle has a larger diameter than the throat above it. That would require me to pull the resin copy out by forcing it through the rubber.

I actually tried a couple of these and they, frankly, sucked. I decided that I would just make a better version of the first two-part mold.

The master, sitting in clay, for the mold that didn’t work.

The master that didn’t work, both parts.

Both halves of the new mold, which looks a lot like the first one. I used big toothpicks to create the air bubble release holes instead of wire.

And I was so excited that I forgot to spray the inside of the mold before I poured the resin, and got this:

Ugh! And the nozzle broke off trying to pull it out of the rubber.

I sprayed the mold and tried again. This time I got a better result:

It was easier to pull out of the rubber this time, but it was still dicey.

The problems pulling the copy out of the mold were reduced, but not eliminated. Those long slabs on the image above are the air bubble holes, filled up with resin. The resin flowed through the mold well, however, and there were no large bubbles. The other problem is that the very bottom of the mold is made of clay, not rubber. It helped hold the master upright when making the mold. A little comes loose with each pull, even after spraying it with mold release. This one looks a lot cleaner, though, and except for removing the plugs on the ends of the nozzles, this one will take much less time to clean up.

By the way, while this one was curing, I cleaned up the other one to see if it was salvageable.

I still have to find a way to glue that nozzle on.

It would need more precision sanding before I would be ready to prime it.

I’ve considered having a more complex shape made in CAD and then having it grown in a 3D printer. I just don’t have the chops with a 3D program to make that happen. I tried a couple of programs, but the free ones don’t seem to work very well and the cost of the higher-end versions – whew!

There is an advantage to using these big thrusters on the Sissy, though. In the books, the riggers sometimes had to remain out on the hull while the ship moves in real space, not just in the Matrix. In the Matrix the ship moves by adjusting the direction of the sails, but once the ship was out, it often jumped right into the thick of battle. One of Daniel Leary’s skills is being the best astrogator this side of his uncle Stacy Bergen, who plotted many of the routes from star to star still used in Leary’s time. Leary could drop out of the Matrix closer to a planet than almost any other captain. This advantage meant that often the ship dropped out of the Matrix and right into the fighting, without having the time for the riggers to come back inside. Often they stayed outside anyway to cast off broken rigging before it fouled the guns or the missile tubes.

So anyway, if the thrusters were smaller and closer to the hull a rigger could be in the way of the exhaust of the rocket engines. Bigger clusters put the nozzles higher, farther away from the hull, where they would be less danger to the riggers. At least, that’s my rationalization!

One other thing. I’m playing with this possible High Drive motor:

I don’t think I like it. And i’s too big.

This thing is about an inch and three-quarters tall. Since an average person is about 3/8″ in this scale, this motor would be almost 30 feet tall in scale! In one of the books – I think it’s “The Far Side of the Stars” – the crew has to install some High Drive motors on another ship while both are on land, not in the water. Adele had hacked into the other ship’s computer and re-routed the plasma thruster controls to the High Drive motors. Using High Drive motors anywhere other than in vacuum is very dangerous, because they operate by matter-antimatter annihilation. The result was that the ship was badly damaged, but the was repaired by the crew of the Sissy and sent back as a sort of Trojan Horse. Since the High Drive motors were destroyed when they were used on the ground, the crew pulled some motors off of a “country craft” that was abandoned in the jungle nearby.

The description doesn’t make it sound as if moving the motors was an insurmountable problem, just with the resources carried on the two ships. It is mentioned that each motor weighs about half a ton. This is about the same weight as a SpaceX Merlin first-stage rocket engine probably weighs. I could see the High Drive motors as about the same size as a Merlin as well. This puts them about the same size as one of the rocket nozzles on the thrusters.

Part of the problem of the prototype above, besides size, is that the wire winding (which is to represent that used to create the magnetic field required for an motor using antimatter) is too big and probably beyond my skills to make prettier. A High Drive motor should be a device that generates and manipulates magnetic fields to control the mix of matter and antimatter.

In the second book the High Drive motors are on the bottom of the main hull, all together. Later they are described as being on the outriggers, in case something bad happens. However, how do you send antimatter to the engines if they are on the outriggers? That’s almost a bigger problem than building the engines!

The motor may not even need a physical nozzle, since the antimatter can’t touch it. I think I have to look into antimatter engines more. Robert Forward described how to make ships operate using “mirror matter,” but not in detail for small motors like this. And most of his required just a little antimatter mixed with more regular matter, usually hydrogen, and superheats the un-annihilated hydrogen to use as reaction mass, as a sort of super-rocket engine.

I know, you can’t study this so close or the physics breaks down! How do they make antimatter, anyway? They even have missiles with small High Drive engines on them, so controlling the magnetic fields must be old hat for these crews. I know – just ignore some of this and read the damned stories!

But to build something that looks believable – well, I have to get my head into the RCN universe and extrapolate. A lot.

My next project after this is the Alliance Space Ship Vorpal Blade, from the John Ringo/Travis Taylor book. It was built from the former USS Nebraska, a ballistic missile submarine! And it has a gigantic – well, sword – on the front! Doc Travis gets the science as right as possible, within the limits of storytelling. Giant intelligent chinchillas on antigravity golden surfboards?

(I have to do this one because I was a “red shirt” in the book. Long story, but John Ringo put a bunch of folks in as red shirts and then of course got them killed off. My character, an intel geek who completely misses the evidence pointing to an incoming invasion of “demon” dog-like creatures, gets torn apart by one of said creatures. And hey, John, I wear glasses and I suppose I’m kinda geeky, but my ears do not stick out! :))