Archive for the ‘alternate history’ Category


Yeah, where is it, anyway?

April 18, 2012

reference for the uninitiated


Where’s my flyin’ car, again?

April 3, 2012

What we should be flyin’ in now, circa 1955.

The Apple iPhone 5, circa 1920.

The flying car of 2012, from a century ago. I like the driver. And the hats!

Check out Paleofuture for more cool stuff!


New rocket-powered vehicle duplicates 1995 takeoff and landing

February 18, 2012


Masten Space Systems, which builds reusable suborbital rockets, recently tested a vehicle that took off, flew to 50 meters altitude, flew 50 meters horizontally downrange, and then landed softly on another concrete landing pad. It did so using new software called the Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment (GENIE), which was developed by the nonprofit Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This is pretty cool, but…the DC-X did the same thing in 1995.


To be fair, the DC-X was controlled at the time, not flying completely autonomously. (Usually, that control was former astronaut Pete Conrad, if I remember correctly.) It did have automatic flying control systems, and in particular used the automatic landing mode several times. On its next to last flight, it flew to an altitude of over 3,000 meters.

Built by McDonnell-Douglas, the DC-X was a 1/3 scale demonstrator for a follow-on vehicle called the Delta Clipper, or DC-Y. The DC-Y was to be a manned, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) reusable spaceship. It was originally funded through the Strategic Defense Initiative. It flew eight test flights in 1993-1995 but the aeroshell was cracked upon landing on the last flight. The vehicle was sent back to MacDac in Huntington Beach for repair. It was fitted with a new lithium-aluminum LOX tank  and a graphite-composite fuel tank that substantially decreased airframe weight. It was christened the DC-XA and flew four more flights from White Sands in 1996. On the fourth flight, on July 31, one of the retractable landing legs failed to extend on landing and the vehicle fell over. It suffered considerable damage, and it was decided there was not enough money left to fund repairs.

Turnaround time between the second and third flights in 1996 was 26 hours; the vehicle successfully validated a rotation of the vehicle prior to landing – the most difficult part of a tail-first soft landing – as well as a number of software and hardware innovations.

I’m not dissing the work of Masten with the Xombie. It was funded partially by NASA, and it is validating control systems and software that could be used on Earth, on the Moon, or even on Mars. It just bothers me that we could be flying reusable spaceships today that would be the third or fourth generation descendants of the DC-Y today. For a fictional look at how the world could have been if such vehicles were in common use, see the Firestar series of novels by Michael F. Flynn.

Early concept of the DC-Y

The SSTO vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle idea has been around since the 1950s; the Luna in the landmark film Destination Moon was such a vehicle, even if it did use a parachute for final landing back on Earth.

Luna, which took off and landed vertically, “as God and Robert Heinlein intended”

In the 1960s and 1970s a wide range of designs were promoted by such visionaries as Gary Hudson, Max Hunter (who designed the Mercury capsule) and Phillip Bono. Plug nozzles, drop tanks – all kinds of vehicles were designed. Some very large ships were designed to take off from a body of water!

Gary Hudson’s Phoenix C

Even using very light airframes utilizing “solid smoke” (a silica aerogel), composite fuel tanks and honeycomb aluminum structures, the numbers just never came out in favor of successfully flying a single-stage rocket directly from Earth into orbit and back again. Liquid hydrogen and LOX (liquid oxygen) as fuel and oxidizer are the rocket fuel combination that produces the most energy per pound, but liquid hydrogen isn’t dense enough – the fuel tank has to be so large that a significant amount of the performance of the fuel is lost due to increased airframe weight. Improved engines or even nuclear engines are probably required to make this concept work. That’s why most of the SSTO designs since that time have taken off and/or landed like aircraft. (For a detailed discussion of the DC-X and SSTO, see Halfway to Anywhere by G. Harry Stine.)

Xombie isn’t designed to fly into orbit; in fact, Masten seems to be focusing on suborbital rockets. I have to hope, though, that the knowledge gained through these tests will help to lead to a viable SSTO someday once the propulsion technology is available to make it possible. If nothing else, it might help SpaceX as it tries to build the Grasshopper reusable suborbital rocket and the fully-reusable version of the Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. I wouldn’t usually expect such a technology transfer from one company to another, but the GENIE software was written by a nonprofit lab. They may be persuaded to license it to multiple users.

SpaceX Falcon 9 – reusable version soft-lands vertically

Update, October 2013: Nobody called me on it, but Max Hunter, mentioned above, was not the designer of the Mercury capsule. That was Maxime Faget, who was a very interesting guy in his own right. That’s what I get for writing the piece pulling stuff out of my brain without fact-checking.

Also, the Falcon 9 version 1.1, which was first test-launched about a week ago, will have much cooler-looking landing legs than those shown above:

falcon landing legs


This is a clipping from the Falcon 9 page on the SpaceX site. It appears they hinge near the engines, and the landing feet or pads are located at the top. There are rumors that the next Falcon 9 launch may involve an attempt to soft-land the first stage. A restart of the center engine of the first stage was mostly successful in the first test flight. A restart of the second stage was more problematic, and it may delay the next test flight.


I have JFK riding a robot unicorn on the Moon…your argument is invalid.

February 16, 2012

Keeping Luna safe for Americans!

Artist Jason Heuser has a somewhat different view of history than most of the rest of us. He has done a series of pieces revising the history of various American Presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt shooting a sasquach, George Washington fighting zombies, and Abraham Lincoln riding a grizzly bear. My favorite is the one shown above, depicting the real facts behind the JFK conspiracy. See, he was sent to the Moon in 1963 to fight aliens to keep us safe. Heuser’s artwork is available on Etsy. You know you need a print of this. Get it for a friend for, oh, Presidents’ Day…


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.)


“Everything Old Is New Again…”

December 8, 2011

It's been around for a while...

Now don’t be thinkin’ this is about politics or something. It’s about the announcement today that the US Air Force has thrown some money – $ 2 million – at Lockheed Martin to begin to develop a reusable flyback space booster.

This is not a new idea. Most ideas being studied in the space business have been around for a while. Mostly what they take is money to actually build prototypes and test them and then fix the bugs and build some more, unlike our current way of building space vehicles: build one and BY GOD NOTHING BETTER GO WRONG OR WE’LL NEVER GIVE YOU ANOTHER DAMN DIME YOU LAZY ROCKET SCIENTISTS! (That’s not me, that’s Congress and the Administration; pick a political party in power. Both have looked at it the same way. We can spend millions of extra money trying to get the bugs out of the F-35, which should probably never work right, but not one more penny for extra space vehicles. In fact, NASA is hoarding the last of the Shuttle Main Engines to use for the heavy lifter.

But back to LockMart’s new RSB Pathfinder. RBS is for…wait for it…Reusable Booster System. It will be proof-of-concept, not operational. What a concept? Boeing quietly built those X-37Bs for the USAF and nobody really knew much about them, and now one has been in orbit, doing God knows what, for over six months.

Flyback boosters have been designed since the 1950s. There is a great deal of information on many of these designs available in Aerospace Projects Review, an e-journal Scott Lowther has helmed for years. I highly recommend it for anybody who is interested in the history of space and aircraft projects that never flew. Nobody does research on this stuff like Scott! His regular site, with a lot of drawings of historical aerospace projects, is here.

One of the most important of the flyback booster designs was presented about a decade ago by a company called Starcraft Boosters, headed by moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

Buzz's Starbooster

Aldrin’s company came up with a whole family of reusable flyback vehicles:

It was a great idea. Buzz even presented it in a science fiction novel called The Return, co-authored with John Barnes. One version was based on an Atlas 5 launcher with wings and jet engines. All of them would be remotely controlled.

So maybe this is the time. The Air Force is not as fickle as NASA, and can afford not to be. Two million bucks isn’t much to start with, but it will show the brass some pretty computer graphics and some PowerPoints. Eventually they will have to throw in some more money.

However, like the X-37, which started out as a NASA project that never got past drop tests, the Air Force actually intends to buy stuff that works. You see, they have reasons to buy stuff. NASA still does a good job setting missions for unmanned planetary probes. Well, actually, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and some universities set some good missions and companies like Orbital Sciences build some good hardware. But the Air Force can think in the long term, and can resist the pull of Congresscritters better than NASA. Maybe what we needed to do, way back in the 1950s, was to turn the whole space program over to the Navy. (There was this retired Annapolis graduate, invalided out because of tuberculosis with a rank of only lieutenant j.g., who probably should have been in charge of it. Although Admiral Heinlein of the U.S. Space Navy sounds better, doesn’t it?)  I think this is a topic for another day.

Although maybe it’s already been going on


“Atlas Shrugged Part 2” – why so much gnashing of teeth?

November 25, 2011

The independent film of the first third of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is out on DVD and Blu Ray in time for Christmas giving. It was a small-budget film, with a cast of lesser-known actors. I had some misgivings about it before it came out. I couldn’t see how it could be set in the near future and work, seeing as how the book was published in the 1950s and was set “approximately” in the 1970s.

She made it all work, and we can still read it today and understand that it was written when the Communist threat of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc countries was very, very real. Translating that to today, or a few years from now, was a dicey proposition.

Somehow they made it convincing enough. I found it internally consistent and easier to follow if I didn’t constantly try to compare it to the book. The Rand’s magnum opus was over a thousand pages and even six hours of film – three movies – will not be a thorough rendering of the book.

That doesn’t mean it can’t convey the main themes Rand presented in the book. So far, I think it’s doing so and doing so in an entertaining way. It’s been hammered by the critics, of course. They are primarily not the audience for a film such as this, anyway. In fact, I would hope that it makes the smarter ones damn mad. Any “progressives” who have some intelligence should feel very uneasy with the things said in this movie. I thought the writer and director focused it correctly to make sure Rand’s theme came out unambiguously.

There has been a lot of talk on the comment sections of the sites for both Part 1 and Part 2, and others, about how the film was poorly marketed, poorly this and poorly that. Not true! It was marketed and placed in theaters independently. It was probably the only way to get it into theaters. There was a lot of talk about how it didn’t make enough money in the theaters. Hasn’t anyone every heard of DVD sales?

A lot of smaller films have very limited release in theaters, and then go quickly to DVD. The DVDs sell over a longer period of time, sometimes by word of mouth more than anything. Eventually the money comes in and everybody gets what they need.

I guess the producers have been thinking of putting some “name” actors in Part 2 to give it more marquee value. There are a lot of Hollywood actors who wouldn’t have anything to do with this film, of course, because it is completely at odds with their politics. The idea that that people won’t see these films unless there is an Angelina Jolie in it is, in my view, flawed.

I thought the cast did what the cast should have done in Part 1 – they became the characters. I didn’t think of the actress playing Dagny as Taylor Schilling, but as Dagny. Rebecca Wisocky (I had to look her name up) was particularly good as Lillian Rearden. Even Grant Bowler, as Hank Rearden, was really pretty good – although I still think he is too short!

Too many “name” actors can’t be “character” actors – Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, even Liam Neeson just can’t (or couldn’t) change enough. This movie is about the ideas, played out by specific characters who typified particular things. That shouldn’t be clouded by “Oh, wow, Liam Neeson was so good as Liam Neeson.”

If you’ve not seen it, get the DVD. Or on Blu-Ray. In any case, right about now, this is the perfect book and film for all Americans to read and see.