Archive for the ‘military’ Category

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The SR-72! ?

November 5, 2013

sr-72

According to this information from Lockheed, they have a way to combine a regular jet turbine engine with a ramjet that could power a Mach 6 aircraft. Calling it the SR-72 as a nod to the famed SR-71 reconnaissance plane the Lockheed Skunk Works built in the 1960s, this one is to be unmanned – like pretty much every military plane on the drawing boards.

I just hate it that they announced way before they bent any tin, though. The X-33 disaster of promise-oops- can’t deliver is still too fresh in my mind. (In defense of Lockheed, though, a lot of the problem with getting the X-33 demonstrator flying was political. Interference by Congress has a way of screwing up programs like that. Well, any program, really. ) Saying they may have this operational by 2030 sounds like a long way off, but the F-35 Strike Fighter has been in development really for over 12 years. They are just barely getting production aircraft out to the USAF now, seven years after the first prototype flew.

I really hope this will happen, even if just for the jumpstart hypersonic flight would get. But the generation that built the U-2, the SR-71 and even the stealth fighter are pretty much retired or passed on. (Kelly Johnson, the legendary leader at the Skunk Works, died in 1990.)

If anyone can do it I figure Lockheed will. But why announce it so early?

 

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I’m becoming an isolationist after all

June 14, 2013

I was in junior high and high school during the Vietnam War. In fact, I was in the last group that was a part of the draft lottery. My birthday was drawn # 322 – nobody forgets what his was. I remember being very upset when the last mad dash was made out of Saigon. I also remember being extremely disappointed in President Nixon for resigning. I think he had had enough, and even after doing what he could to get us out of that mess, he knew the rest of his second term would be all about the Watergate scandal.

I believed at the time, and I still pretty much believe, that we were right in trying to help the South Vietnamese people defend themselves against the North. Unfortunately, I think many of them came to hate us more than the North Vietnamese, and the political and diplomatic ball was dropped so many times it became impossible to be effective. And China and North Vietnam had seen the stalemate that was Korea, and they knew that, even though we went into World War II to kick ass and get out, if they could wait it out and seed enough discontent, they might win the day.

And they did.

I still believe that we should encourage “liberal democracies” all across the world. (Not as in our liberals, but the true meaning of the term.) I guess I mean that we should encourage people to have the right to personal freedom, the rule of law, and self-determination. If we believe rule by tyrants is not morally acceptable, then we should assist other peoples in removing their tyrants and become self-determining. George W. Bush was quite taken by a little book by Natan Sharansky called The Case for Democracy. Sharansky points out that democracies, particular capitalist democracies, do not make war upon one another. I recall that Condoleeza Rice recommended the book to W, and he became a true believer – and that this helped drive his efforts to remake Iraq into a democratic country.

The jury is still out on that one. Iraq had a particular problem besides Islam, which does not fit well within a liberal democracy. It really should be three countries based on its religious and ethnic groups. Holding those three groups together in one country could be very difficult in the long term. It probably wasn’t the best test case for Sharansky’s theory, but it was what was available at the time.

The greater question is, how much do we do to help a people obtain self-determination? Do we covertly aid rebel groups fighting a tyrannical government? (For example, the Iran-Contra affair.) Do we provide air strikes  and armor and take out the government, forcing “regime change”? (As in Iraq.) Do we just provide intelligence and information? Do we provide covert assassins?

Then, of course, conflicts that begin out of a way to help a group of people who are being oppressed can backfire. (See “Arab Spring.”) Sometimes it is difficult to see one group in a conflict that is more moral, or more democratic-minded, than the other. (See Africa in general, and South and Central America.) The Shah of Iran was considered a pretty tyrannical leader, but can it honestly be said that he was worse than what followed? And we don’t really have control of that, do we. (See Iraq, again.)

Then there is Afghanistan. I confess that as I started to write this piece I realized I wasn’t really sure what our objectives are in Afghanistan. To root out Al Qaeda, sure. But we are leaving the local warlords in place, pretty much, and we have devote ten years and an awful lot of lives and treasure in what seems to be a futile effort. No outside country has ever been able to conquer that rockpile, including the Soviets, who worked pretty hard at it. And the most damaging thing Afghanistan can do to the US is continue to grow opium poppies, so they can ship heroin here, and we don’t destroy those fields because the poor folks there would lose their cash crop. What?

Today’s announcement that The Current Occupant of the White House has decided that a leader can kill over 90,000 of his own people, but he’d better do it conventionally, not by using poison gas. That puts him over the line and we have to step in. But we’re going to step in by what, again? Sending an unspecified number of arms (kinds of arms also unspecified) to a rebel organization, which is itself a shadowy outfit.

Now, I’m no fan of the UN. If I was President one of my top ten things to do on my first day in office would be to kick that bunch of whiners out of New York. But we’er opening ourselves to a lot of criticism for openly arming a rebel organization against a recognized sovereign government.

But we’ve done that before and we’ll probably do it again. And I don’t think it will tip the scales, one way or another. And if it does, and the new government of Syria is of a fundamentalist Islamic nature, I doubt they will be thankful of our help for one minute. (See Libya. See Egypt. Oh, hell, see Bosnia.)

Maybe this time the aid will be limited, and no Americans will set foot there, and we won’t move a carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean to bomb the hell out of anybody. (After all, we have that sequester, which means no tours of the White House and the Sixth Fleet doesn’t burn any gas.)

But don’t count on it. Obama has shown himself to be unpredictable in military matters, and if things get really hairy in the Middle East – even more than they are now – he might be tempted to be the Great Intervener.

I’ve become of a mind that if US interests aren’t threatened, leave these people the hell alone. Afghanistan is NOT someplace we should send our young people to die. Neither is Damascus. US interests are not being served in either place. (Want to do something real about Al Qaeda? Go talk to our “friends,” the Saudis. They have far more to do with that bunch than any two-bit warlord in the mountains of Afghanistan.)

The only real US interest in the Middle East is Israel, and Obama has been running away from them as fast as he can for the past five years. He is unlikely to intervene if Iran decided to really go after Israel, and I have a feeling that if their backs are against the wall, the Israelis can take care of themselves. You can’t live your whole life surrounded by people who want to kill you and not have an end-game plan.

And bet on it, the leadership in Israel is not stupid. These are tough guys who will make the tough decisions when they need to, and they’ve been gaming these scenarios for fifty years.

But they might have to turn Tehran into green glass to do it. They wouldn’t want to, but if it came to “us or them,” I think they wouldn’t hesitate. Like I said, tough guys. Serious tough guys.

So I’m turning more libertarian all the time, I guess. That includes getting out of places in the world where we aren’t wanted and where we are gaining nothing.  Cutting the military? Then pull ’em back and use them for defense, not “power projection.” Let somebody else be the world’s policeman. Let’s see how that works out.

I think if I had a child who was killed while serving in the US military in Afghanistan I would be more than heartbroken, not just for the loss of a child, but that he or she was lost for nothing…a patriotic American lost because of misguided politicians who seem to have little concern for the lives of our military men and women.

I know that makes me sound like one of those anti-war folks during the Vietnam War, but I’m not blaming the soldiers. I would never do that. But they are far too often put in harm’s way for no good reason, and I think it is becoming more evident every day that trying to police the world, and losing blood and treasure to defend the ungrateful is the height of stupidity.

I never thought I would feel this way. But I’ve watched this too many times. I’m tired of hearing of young men and women dying for no reason that can be explained to their families. But I have absolutely no idea how to go about changing this situation.

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The US Navy gets it right! Hooray!

December 4, 2012

03_uss_enterprise_cvn_65

The US Navy’s first nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, CVN-65, has been officially “inactivated.” That would be a sad thing, except…

The Navy also announced that the next aircraft carrier to be built will also be named Enterprise. The two currently under construction are the Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78 (the lead ship of the new class), and the John F. Kennedy, CVN-79. The new Enterprise will likely not enter service until 2025, but it will happen. Now if NASA would have done the same thing…

1-aircraft-carrier

 

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Fox News and Libya

October 29, 2012

I just did a piece on Fox News being the only news outlet to really cover what happened in Benghazi over on Keep Americans Free! I invite you to check it out.

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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!

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The critics are sinking my “Battleship”!

May 27, 2012

I saw “Battleship” for the second time today. My son and his fiance had not seen it, and they wanted to see it instead of “Men In Black 3”, so we went to see it again.

The Cinemark theater in Independence, Ohio, had a great screen and decent sound – the sound wasn’t as deafening as a lot of theaters I’ve been in over the last few years, but it was loud enough to give some solid impact.

I’ve read a lot on the intertubes about what a poor film this is, what a stupid premise, poor writing, poor acting, poor casting – pretty much everything but the color of the US Navy ships has been criticized.

OK, I’ll agree that it has some plot issues. You can’t think too much about the astronomy and physics involved. Only six years after sending a signal into space from a Landsat – and that series of satellites were intended to study the Earth, not “deep space” – the nasty aliens appear. (Speed-of-light issues notwithstanding.) Nobody knows if they are really interested in wiping us out or not. We know they need to take over our communications equipment on Oahu to send a message back home. (Their own communications craft somehow had collided with a satellite on its way toward earth, destroying it and scattering pieces of it all over the planet.)

A case could be made that the aliens are just trying to take this set of satellite dishes over to phone home, but otherwise don’t necessarily want to conquer or exterminate us. They really didn’t bring enough manpower to do so. Was the signal supposed to say “Y’all come”? Are they the scout team?

If you can get past that stuff, the rest of the movie is a lot of fun. It’s not the only sci-fi movie with bad science. In fact, I’d wager far more science fiction films have been made with almost no regard to the science than those with even a passing nod to physics, chemistry or biology.

The real positives in this film keep it going when thing otherwise get weak. Taylor Kitsch, a total unknown to me before this, actually does a credible job as the screwup-with-tons-of-potential who comes through in the crisis. He is not terribly likable at the beginning, but you have to admire his dedication in the face of overwhelming odds. I happen to believe we need folks like him, the ones who are willing to go all the way out there, instead of playing it safe all the time.

The addition of so many real-live military personnel is a great touch. They helped us suspend our disbelief, and do so subtly. The tributes to the veterans – both active and passive tributes – was touching. There are always those critics who find such treatment of our men and women in uniform somehow old-fashioned and treacly, but I for one really felt director Peter Berg was honest and respectful in his portrayal of the military. I’m sure there were things that were technically and procedurally incorrect in the goings-on aboard ship. None of that detracted from my enjoyment of the film.

To me, the “third act” was what made the movie work for me. I can’t talk about it without serious spoilers, so don’t go further if you don’t want to know what happens yet. I advise you to see the movie yourself first. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Some years ago my wife and I were fortunate to visit Hawaii and tour the USS Missouri. We had already toured its sister ship in Norfolk, the USS Wisconsin. These World War II era battleships are very impressive even just tied up to the dock. We were told while in Norfolk that the Wisconsin was technically on “active reserve” status  – in fact, that is why we couldn’t go inside. The interiors were kept air-conditioned and humidity-controlled, and should the need arise, the ship could be recalled to active duty, as it was for the first Gulf War.

Since that time, both ships have been turned over to museums – the Missouri to an association in Hawaii, the Wisconsin to the City of Norfolk. That’s only occurred within the last decade, though, so the state of the ships should be pretty good. The Missouri actually was laid up in drydock a couple of years ago for repairs, so she’s probably more seaworthy than she was a decade ago!

If you didn’t know that, the idea of starting up a WWII battleship and getting it out of Pearl Harbor to fight in a matter of hours seems more than far-fetched. One single explanatory line of dialog would have helped make that clear. Otherwise, it’s a reach that the ship could even move! (Of course, where they found the ammunition and the powder bags is a question as well, but at least one plot hole would have been fixed.

The aliens’ behavior was not incomprehensible…but…the lack of an attempt to communicate with humans pretty much flew in the face of one of the main tropes in alien invasion movies – somehow, in almost every movie, we learn what the aliens’ motives are, for good or ill. These aliens were tough, but they didn’t leave their own behind – just like our own military elite units – and they were very single-minded and focused. Is this behavior all that much different from our SEALS or Rangers? Would they be expected to parley with local leaders, or would that be left to diplomats? Maybe all the diplomats were on the communications ship!

In fact, the red/green IDs for people and weapons in the aliens’ heads-up displays indicated that they believed in only attacking threats. If anybody was sneaky and underhanded, it was us!

So yes, there are holes and defects. Pretty much every movie has them. (Think hard about the physics of Iron Man’s flight characteristics – I dare you.) I think the premise that a popcorn movie was being made based on a game, and a game that lacks a real narrative at that, provided the fodder needed by a lot of critics who think they’re clever folk. For the really  lazy critic, sometimes it’s easy to go for the cheap shot, and if he doesn’t have to actually analyze the movie, it’s even better.

I think that’s what happened here. A lot of critics had their minds made up before the movie even came out. Unfortunately, that affects theatergoers and attendance. The presence of so many online critics makes them, as a group, far more influential than a few magazine or newspaper critics were twenty years ago, instead of the reverse.

I’m only going to mention the fact that movies that portray the US military in a positive light usually have a rocky road to go with many critics. I’m not going into that any more in this piece!

So…go see it. It’s the kind of movie that deserves the big-screen, big-sound-system treatment to be appreciated. Watching it on DVD on your 19-inch in the kitchen in six months is not going to work for this one. Make up your own mind. I think far more folks will enjoy this movie than think they might. Give it a try!

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If you’re the Federal government, and you’re doing one thing right, kill it!

May 13, 2012

I can only see one reason for the House Appropriations Committee’s push for NASA to “downselect” the number of companies building private spacecraft: pork barrel politics.

I’ve not looked into the congresscritters who are pushing the restriction of NASA funding to one or two companies yet. I know that two of them are Florida Republicans, Bill Posey and Sandy Adams. I simply cannot fathom any other reason for Republicans in the House to make such an incredibly boneheaded decision!

Unfortunately, making boneheaded, short-sighted decisions is not just in the purview of Democrat congresscritters. Republicans seem to be just as willing and able to do so. House members are supposed to be more responsive to their electorates than Senators, decreed so by virtue of the structure laid out in the Constitution. I expect that Representatives would do what they can to make sure tax dollars going into the Federal government coffers come back to their constituents.

NOTE: OK, kids, go into the other room and watch TV or read a book. Preferably Robert A. Heinlein or L. Neil Smith, if possible. Anyway, the adults and I have to talk and I may get emotional and use colorful language.

But: after decades of harping that the space program would be in better hands if not a governmental agency, just when competitive approaches to access to orbit are beginning to bloom – they want to kill them, and return to the bad old days when NASA was the only game in town.

THIS IS COMPLETE AND UTTER STUPIDITY. IT MAKES NO SENSE ON ANY LEVEL EXCEPT A LEVEL OF SELFISHNESS THAT SHOULD NOT BE DEMONSTRATED BY ANY OF OUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES TO CONGRESS.

Mark my words, brothers and sisters: this has absolutely nothing to do with safety, “protection of government intellectual property” – whatever the Hell that means, and don’t get me started – good stewardship of our tax dollars, or any other high-handed phrases they can trot out.

It comes down to CONTROL. CONTROL OF YOUR TAX MONEY. That, folks, is really all the Federal government is about. Take the taxing power away  – or even restrict it – and the whole thing would wither and die in a fortnight. The fact remains that the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, THROUGH THE CONGRESS, CAN TAX US TO ANY EXTENT IT WISHES, AND WE ARE POWERLESS TO STOP IT. 

Do NOT give me crap about “we can fix it in the next election.” Look what this idiot has done to us in three and a half years. He flagrantly violates the Constitution and Federal law, and no one – even the Republicans in Congress – does anything about it. He browbeats the Supreme Court, threatens the Congress, and places blame for his own misguided ideas on everyone else, and we’re all supposed to be happy because he’s decided he’s for gay marriage. (Let’s not talk about how that announcement came right before a huge Hollywood fundraiser, because of course there is no connection.) And the alternative: I am not convinced Romney will be much better, sorry.

“But Stimps,” you say, “if you really believe in those crazy libertarian-leaning views of yours, why should you care? Shouldn’t those private companies be able to compete anyway with whatever company NASA might select?”

OK. Small words, short sentences. It’s not that complicated as to why that won’t work.

1. Government regulation. You can’t launch a rocket from US soil without jumping through about a million hoops first. Rockets are huge tanks of highly explosive chemicals, sheathed in metal; it’s supposed to be bad to launch one from, say, Indiana. The folks in Ohio where said failed rocket falls would be upset. So some regulation might be necessary, but – SpaceX wasn’t allowed to do their first Falcon launches from anywhere within the US, not even Florida. They had to go out to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. When the launch was scrubbed, they had to wait for another tanker of liquid oxygen to come from the US because they had lost too much of their supply to boiloff already. There are no sources of LOX on the Atoll, imagine that. The government put them so far away from the world that most people would have given up. Elon Musk, thank the Good Lord, is NOT most people. Still, the Federal regulations they had to go through to launch from Pad 40 at the Cape are incredible.

“But,” you say, “United Launch Alliance has to go through the same thing before they launch an Atlas or a Delta, right?”

OK…

2. There is no real competition if some companies get major favoritism from the government. United Launch Alliance is, actually, Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, dba as ULA. In 2005 SpaceX challenged them through antitrust laws as a monopoly. In 2006 the Pentagon and the Federal Trade Commission both gave ULA their blessing, of course. Case closed.

There was a big political reason for this, of course. It looked on the surface like privatization of launch services but the same people who had been doing the work for NASA now just got their paychecks from ULA instead of either the Feds or LockMart or Boeing. It is, in essence a shell company. Business as usual. And a bunch of folks working on the Florida Space Coast kept their jobs. Since this was during the wind-down of shuttle operations it was largely considered a Happy Thing. Unfortunately, SpaceX was right. ULA is the de facto only provider of orbital launch services to the US Government except for S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, which builds and launches the Soyuz and Progress vehicles to the ISS. We’re not pushing EADS to build a man-rated Ariane 5, are we? (Oh, well, yeah, the Liberty launcher, with ATK, but I don’t know if that counts, seeing as how they are kind of on the outs with NASA right now. This is one of those endeavors I’m sure the Congressional Committee would like to be killed first. Well, maybe second, after SpaceX.)

Besides, there are really only four markets for space launches right now: commercial satellites, government (military) satellites, manned and unmanned missions to support the International Space Station, and soon, hopefully, manned and unmanned support of the Bigelow Aerospace orbital habitats.

More commercial satellite launches worldwide now go to Arianespace than to ULA – we’ve already lost that market, big time. Energia is going launch a Soyuz from the Arianespace launch site in French Guiana soon.  (Kazakstan is getting to be increasingly difficult to work in if you are a Russian, I understand.) The US government should be encouraging US companies to compete with the French and the Russians, not throw roadblocks in their way.

We can – and should – enable a competitive market for the ISS supply missions. That’s what most of the commercial companies are working toward right now, of course. They all believe – or they wouldn’t be in this game – that eventually there will be a much larger market for manned space flights. I don’t think any of them are stupid enough to believe that they can make a profit from only ISS flights, especially if there are several vendors vying for the same business.

“OK, genius,” you add, “what about Manned Exploration of Our Solar System and Beyond?”

Elon Musk is thinking about that. He’s made sure the design of the Dragon will allow it to be used in all kinds of places, like manned landings on Mars. By tying three Falcon 9 cores together to create the Falcon Heavy he will have the most powerful launcher in the world. And sorry, NASA’s SLS is still a pipe dream, folks. I’ll believe it when I see it take off from Pad 39A.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

But SpaceX seems to be the only one thinking that far ahead. Boeing doesn’t count; the CST-100 has been built from the ground up as an ISS service vehicle. LockMart’s Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (AKA Orion) is designed to go to lunar orbit or to near-earth asteroids, so that’s a big plus for that vehicle. LockMart went ahead with development when the Orion program was officially cancelled by the Obama Administration, I think with a wink and a nod from NASA; since then they have received some NASA funding to continue construction of the test article and related stuff, like a simulator they build originally on their own dime. Lockheed-Martin is the largest defense contractor in the US; it’s not likely that any technology they create for the government is going to be shelved without them getting paid for it.

Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences, and SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada are all looking more at the sub-orbital and low earth orbit flight envelopes. I really don’t get what Blue Origin is trying to do; they are building a suborbital tourist vehicle, and then a totally separate ISS supply vehicle, and probably eventually a home-grown booster for it. But Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame is no dummy, and I figure he has a plan. He’s been very quiet about it, though – not necessarily a bad thing in a government-industrial-complex environment that is a lot like eighth grade in terms of gossip and favoritism. Orbital Sciences seems to be concentrating on the small satellite market. They’ve had some setbacks in launching their own home-grown liquid-fueled booster, which is needed to launch their Cygnus unmanned ISS supply craft. I really like the Dream Chaser lifting-body design SpaceDev is building; they are the only folks trying to orbit a truly reusable spaceplane. Their work is going slowly, thought, it seems.

Every single one of these approaches to manned orbital flight – Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, SpaceX, ATK/Astrium, Blue Origin, and SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada – have elements that sets it apart from the others. While all but SpaceDev are building “Apollo-like” conical vehicles, that decision makes sense. The research on such designs has been validated for decades and gives them all an easier path to building a successful vehicle. There are even several different approaches to emergency escape from a rocket in trouble, from a solid booster under the capsule to a ring of liquid-fueled engines to a traditional, Apollo-style escape tower.

Eventually, one or two of these companies might be the most successful and get the lion’s share of the orbital market. Even better, competition should bring the cost of lofting personnel and equipment to orbit far lower than the Shuttle could ever accomplish. Assisting what appear to be well-thought-out approaches with government grants makes sense only if the government is planning on being a major customer. If there was no ISS, and no NASA plans for further exploration, don’t fund ’em at all. In this case it is somewhat of an “if you build it, they will come” scenario: the commercial space market will grow – I think it will explode – when there is real low-cost access to space. We should have had this kind of situation thirty years ago, but we got the Shuttle – a massive government employment program with a marginally-performing spaceship in the middle. Government restriction to one or two competitors means a major boost for those companies and a major disadvantage to all others. That’s not how a capitalistic society should work. The fact that it doesn’t work properly in so many other areas because of the meddling of government is no reason to destroy one area where it does seem to be working. It should be seen as a model for the cooperation of the government with private industry, not as a drain on resources.

One other thing: We are talking about a half-billion dollars a year here. Maybe, through the development life of the programs, four or five billion. The average cost of flying the Shuttle for just one mission: $ 450 million!

In these days of multi-trillion-dollar social programs and continual debates about defense spending, throwing a half-billion a year at something that could lead to humanity really getting off this planet someday seems pretty small. And unbelievably petty. So there has to be something else behind it.

Oh, and what’s this nonsense from former Apollo astronauts backing the House Committee? Have they lost their senses? Or were they so tied up in the government/military-industrial complex themselves in the Apollo days to not see what’s going on now? Note that Buzz Aldrin is not among this group. Buzz is out there sometimes, but he for sure gets it.

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“Godspeed, John Glenn”

February 20, 2012

Fifty years ago today, a team of American and former German scientists and engineers took a missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead and used it to put a highly-decorated U.S. Marine pilot into orbit. He wasn’t the first person in orbit – that honor went to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, but John Glenn was just about the perfect 1960s American representative in space. Korean War hero, test pilot, and even the winner of a national TV game show, Glenn was unabashedly patriotic and had that boyish grin to boot!

Now, I’m not nearly as happy with his record as a U.S. Senator from Ohio – he was too liberal for me, and I felt he didn’t promote the space program enough – but he was the right man at the right time and he did America proud.

Glenn's Mercury-Atlas

Today, after tens of thousands of hours in orbit by hundreds of Americans and many, many others, Glenn’s short trip should still be thought of as a tremendously brave act. The Atlas was, at best, a pretty unreliable booster. It was getting to be more reliable by February of 1962 but it still had a long way to go to be man-rated by the standards of today. The skin of the Atlas was about as thin as a dime, and it only could support itself when fully fueled – it was a stainless-steel balloon with rocket engines on the bottom. Riding this thing into orbit was by no means a certainty.

Today's ULA Atlas V

The Atlas V that is commonly used today barely resembles the rocket Convair built in the early 1960s. It’s aluminum now, with a single Russian-designed engine. Today it’s a very reliable booster…but it hasn’t ever been used to launch a man into space. Perhaps it will be, since it is being considered as a potential launcher for the Boeing CST-100.

Boeing CST-100

But that reminds me…in 1962 we could launch a man into space on a ballistic missile. Today, we no longer have that capability…sigh.

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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.)

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“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