Oct 312013

By the early 1980’s, NASA has semi-permanent manned lunar bases and is sending men beyond.  Numerous space stations and manned platforms circle the Earth and the moon. Commercial platforms are popping up, with companies buying rides on the Space Shuttle and sometimes “renting” the entire vehicle. People are starting to seriously pursue space tourism as a paying business; the first such tourists buy seats on Shuttle flights that have been rented by commercial satellite launch firms. And now due to competition with the Soviet Union, the US is quickly getting into the business of militarizing space.

This is a major change to the way NASA has worked. NASA has been in the business of science and exploration; it is not well suited to commercial enterprise, military endeavors or construction projects. Future commercial and military plans are rapidly outpacing NASA plans and NASA capacity. While the NASA budget has settled out at about a constant 2.5% of the US Federal budget, the total number of trained astronauts is far too low even for planned commercial efforts in Earth orbit, never mind all the other programs. Additionally, NASA has focused on training “elite” astronauts, when what’s becoming needed is a construction corps of builders and get-it-done-types.

Further: NASA’s efforts and funding have gone preferentially towards the “S” in NASA (“Space”), while the first “A” (“Aeronautics”) has been virtually ignored. As a result, the American SST program, which resulted in the Boeing 2707 (first flight 1976) has stagnated with only twelve aircraft flying. The Boeing 737 and 747 remain, by the early 1980’s, the primary means of American air travel; even with the massive drop in oil prices following the collapse of OPEC, supersonic travel remains terribly expensive and beyond the financial reach of most travelers.

So, in 1982, after much wrangling, wailing and gnashing of teeth, NASA is broken up. The old National Advisory Council on Aeronautics, which formed the original backbone of NASA, is re-incorporated, focusing on aeronautical technology… aerodynamics, jet engines, materials technologies, etc. Facilities, staff and funding are now separate from the space-oriented organization that had been strangling them.

The space side of NASA is reorganized into the US Astronautics Agency. The USAA is aimed not only at continuing the “elite” efforts of NASA, the pushing-the-envelope projects, but also at the less glamorous efforts of space launch and construction.  The USAA is modeled somewhat on the Works Progress Administration for the Great Depression era, but instead of hiring millions of low-skilled workers in order to prop up a faltering economy, the USAA  hires and trains thousands of skilled workers to be space workers.

In order to provide direction to the USAA, the anemic National Aeronautics and Space Council (done away with by Nixon on 1973 IRL, but here it has hung on) is reformed into the more focused National Council on Astronautics. The NCA and the USAA are closely linked, in that the NCA is the political link between the USAA and the President and Congress; staffed by career bureaucrats, the NCA works to both direct political will, and to carry out political will.

The USAA is tasked with physically building the future. The former NASA research facilities, such as  Marshall, Langley, Ames and so on, continue to develop advanced technologies and missions. New facilities are set up around the nation to train the vast numbers of astronauts and technicians and engineers and others that the new programs will need, as well as take advanced new technologies and turn them into standard practices. Boise, Denver, Seattle and Albuquerque, for example, see massive new facilities. New launch facilities are built offshore from Kennedy Space Center, in the Gulf of Mexico a few miles from Galveston, and south-east of the Big Island of Hawaii. Belize lobbies hard for a launch facility.

Where NASA had tried to hold itself somewhat apart from the military and seemed at best lukewarm to commercial enterprise, the USAA is formed to work hand-in-hand with both the military and private enterprise. The USAA has unique launch and space construction abilities, and is available for rent. While some in government take issue with this, calling the USAA a “mercenary perversion of NASA’s mission,” the fact remains that the income the USAA derives from both American and foreign paying customers offsets a large fraction of the total USAA budget.

The USAA is born in controversy, with many angry at the loss of NASA; but within the decade the controversy has faded in the face of unquestioned success. While Space Station II was an acknowledged failure, Space Station I was a roaring success and a half dozen clones of it have been built and put into service. Space Station III is a new concept in space station construction; plans are in place for even bigger stations and even permanent “towns” on the moon.

Of course, there are also plans to fill the heavens with weapons. By the time Reagan leaves office in 1985, the USAA is busy launching nuclear weapons platforms and directed energy systems into orbit. These remain against international treaty… but by this point, nobody really cares much. The Soviets got there first… but the Americans got there bigger. The fact that the “mass simulator” launched by the first Neptune booster was in fact a harmless mockup remains a tightly guarded secret… by simply claiming that it is, in fact, simply a mass simulator. The Soviets assume that the claim is a lie, and so continue to believe that the platform is a weapon. Ironically, over the course of the 80’s, the platform is slowly converted into an actual platform; the mass of inert aluminum structural beams that make up its bulk are removed for use in other orbital construction projects, and are replace a bit at a time with actual power systems, sensors and weapons. By the end of the 80’s the “mass simulator” is a true battle station, but by this point it’s merely one of many.

1985 sees not only a new President – Vice President Bob Dole easily defeats Mondale – but also new design competitons. The Shuttle has been flying operationally for half a dozen years… successfully, but expensively. It will need replacing by the 1990’s for passenger launch. Also, the Neptune has replaced the Saturn V, but it, too, will need supplementing by the early 1990s. Something bigger is needed…

To be continued

 Posted by at 8:52 am
Oct 312013

An interesting blog posting up at CNN.com:

‘Mr. Spock goes to church’: How one Christian copes with Asperger’s syndrome

What we have here is a feller claiming to be both an Aspie and a Christian. This is a somewhat unusual combination; Asperger’s syndrome and religious conviction are often assumed to be sorta of mutually exclusive concepts. And for good reason. As one religious blogger notes:

Aspies are known to be literal, black and white thinkers who want or need evidence or proof. Spiritual faith does not require proof.

(Note: That second sentence could be written better. “Spiritual faith is the rejection of proof” would seem to me to be more accurate.)

Being literal-minded can set up some issues when faced with concepts such as religious faith in things that cannot be demonstrated (life after death, angels, God, honest politicians, that sort of thing). I suspect that many Aspie children believe in some god or other because they were told to, just as children believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus; but when they start to become aware of the fact that some things they were told Are So turn out to Not Be So, this can make ’em especially jumpy about the undemonstrated, and here’s where religious families start having trouble with kids with Aspergers. Too many claim that their favored religious text is Literal Truth rather than Allegory, and there’s  really no such thing as a religious text that stands up to Literal Truth Scrutiny. So when you claim that your book is Fact, and something within it is patently silly… then to someone with a black-and-white worldview, the whole thing is suspect, as is any attached belief-and-practice system.


Interestingly, there is another side to Aspergers: many of ’em *are* religious, and from what I’ve read, they tend to be of the more fundamentalist variety. That black-and-white thinking that leads most Aspies away from religion makes the religious Aspies into black-and-white-thinking religious types: this behavior is good, that behavior will get you sent straight to Hell.

Back to the original “Mr. Spock” link: the writer sez…

I desperately wanted to have what they had – an emotional experience of God’s presence – and asked them to pray over me.

It didn’t work.

When I didn’t move with the Holy Spirit or speak in tongues, they told me it was because I had rejected God.

From my experience, the church experience seems to break down into two basic types:

1) Legalistic/ritualistic (the Catholic masses/weddings I’ve been to… yeeesh, what a snore)

2) Extreme emotionalism… singing, clapping, yelling, etc.

Maybe some Aspies would get a warm fuzzy from the first type (Yay! Rules! Order! Ritual!), but the second type seems to be tailor-made to push Aspies away: if you inject someone who has trouble with basic human socialising into a room full of people who are socializing loudly, powerfully and, in the final analysis, socializing around something not rationally explainable, I can’t see much beyond a whole lot of confusion and feeling of alienation. Couple that with the Aspies lower incidence of seeing “purpose” behind events that were not the result of obvious human choice, and it seems pretty clear that the pews probably wouldn’t be full of Aspie worshipers busily trying to avoid eye contact.

 Posted by at 2:17 am
Oct 312013

I honestly cannot tell where these things fall on the “Goofy-To-Cool” spectrum. But being poor, I take comfort in knowing that I’ll never be faced with having to really decide.

Jet Capsule

What it is is a miniature yacht. Looks kinda like a minivan merged with a Volkswagen merged with a jetski merged with a bumpercar.

The_Jet_Capsule_089 The_Jet_Capsule_0078h The_Jet_Capsule_0022_Livello_1

It can, of course, be customized with many and varied extras. They suggest ambulance versions, water-taxi versions, ‘party boat’ versions. Here’s the one I want:


 Posted by at 12:59 am
Oct 302013

Reagans public talk of space weapons is, initially, just that: talk. In the latter half of the 1970’s, the USAF has no plans for space based weaponry, and is initially taken aback by Reagans public discussions. There are some ill-prepared DoD denials of such programs made by various officials; these denials only serve to convince the Soviets that the US is, in fact, developing space weaponry. So, Soviets being Soviets, they have to get there first. The CIA keeps a careful watch over these developments.

By 1980, the CIA can confidently report that the Soviets are in fact testing space-based weapons platforms, intended both to destroy space assets such as communications and recon satellites, and also to drop nuclear warheads onto ground targets. This is, of course, in violation of treaties banning nuclear weapons in space. But the Soviets are convinced that the US is ahead of them in this race. The failure by the US to publicly display their own space weapons confuses and dismays the Soviets; they read this as the Americans being confident due to a massive superiority over the Soviets. When, in fact, the US has almost nothing to show.

The Soviets launch their first Polyus space battlestation in summer, 1980. This terrifies the US public, much as Sputnik did, especially in light of the past several years of Communist advances around the world. After the early US withdrawal from Viet Nam, South Viet Nam was left vulnerable; within 8 months the armistice had broken down and the North Vietnamese Army had swept south, conquering the South. The US did nothing to stop this, being simply tired of the war and too busy with other matters. The Soviets and Chinese saw this as weakness, American unwillingness to really stand up to them. So Communism was aggressively pushed: several nations in Africa and all of Southeast Asia are under Marxist regimes by the election of 1980. The Philippines are in open civil war against a well-funded Communist insurrection; Australia and New Guinea are looking at a Communist Indonesia. Italy, Spain and France are teetering on the edge of becoming outright Communist states.

So, by the 1980 election, the world looks ready for a new global war, one likely to be fought in the heavens. The Polyus, an enlarged dual-module Salyut station armed with, supposedly, guns, rockets, lasers and nukes, is seen orbiting overhead by the US public. Reagans idle talk of space weapons now seem vitally important; his Democrat opponent, Walter Mondale, who had been publicly lampooning Reagans talk of space weapons, suddenly looks really bad. The election is a cakewalk for Reagan, and a mandate for space weaponization.

The Space Shuttle has been flying since 1978, carrying small payloads and, more importantly, crews to the various space laboratories and Space Station I. The Saturn rockets have been launching heavy payloads such as space labs, lunar missions, unmanned probes to the planets and commercial platforms. And now the Neptune comes on scene, with first launch in the spring of 1981. The first launch is officially to be merely a test launch; the initial plan was to simply carry about 800,000 pounds of water… modestly useful as an orbiting payload, but more important just as a proper mass simulator. But in the months before the launch, the water tank is replaced with… something else. What replaces the water is not clear to the public, and the President, NASA and the USAF aren’t talking. Organizations keeping an eye on events, from news media to the KGB, are only able to put together a few confusing details… whatever it is, it’s heavy, consuming the total 1,000,000 pound payload of the Neptune, while being relatively compact. Thus, it’s dense. Blurry photos taken through a hangar door show a USAF insignia on the side of a large metal cylinder. At the  same time, Aviation Week reporters start putting together a few disparate facts: several Minuteman ICBMs have been recently removed from their silos; the upper stage and their nuclear payloads have been removed. General Electric was working on a prototype of a new generation space nuclear reactor, capable of putting out in excess of one megawatt of electrical power; the prototype has disappeared from the Nevada test site. Other details come together to indicate that whatever the Neptune is launching, it is going to be impressive. Several clumsily and hurriedly planned espionage efforts are detected and  stopped. In April of 1981, with Reagan watching from the stands, the first Neptune launches, sending it’s payload into a 300 nautical mile orbit with a surprisingly high inclination for a Florida launch. Officially, the payload remains merely a “mass simulator,” but nobody believes that.

Ground based telescopes show a compact structure, bristling with sensors, antenna, solar panels, one nuclear reactor that seemingly has not yet been turned on, and doors. Lots of doors. This “mass simulator” looks like the most dangerous thing in the solar system, and it terrifies the Soviets. Any plans they may have had about using Polyus to take out American space assets are put on hold; the US space battlestation is a monster compared to the USSR’s relatively pitiful space platform. Especially since the Soviets know that the Polyus was hastily assembled, and most of the engineers who put it together are uncertain that half the systems will even work if called upon.

What the Soviets don’t know about the American “mass simulator:” That is, in fact, all it is. A mockup made from a million pounds of aluminum, with a few spare RTG’s to provide a little bit of power and neutron radiation, to make the lights blink and the phony sensor stalks to open up. The inside of the shell is merely a tightly-packed structure of spot-welded aluminum beams. Some off-the-shelf Apollo RCS systems give it the ability to orient itself, to make it look  like it’s doing something important.

The 1980’s begin with the Soviets and the Americans staring at each other across the oceans, each convinced that the other is further ahead in the race to weaponize space than it really is. But the race is now well and truly on: the “mass simulator” bought the US time to really get going; the Soviets are not willing to pull any stunts so long as that monster is overhead, but they, too, are plowing ahead at full speed to perfect weapons systems and platforms.

At the same time, NASA has plans for the Neptune booster: real lunar bases, manned missions to Mars, asteroids and Venus, and solar power satellites. But now it looks as if the American manned space program, so long a supposedly “civilian” program, is about to be overtaken by military needs. Will NASA be forced to share resources – launch vehicles, launch sites, personnel – with the USAF? Will the USAF  run the space program? Will the USAF fracture, forming a US Space Force, perhaps with a portion of the US Navy?

To be continued

 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Oct 302013

Artwork of a three-stage rocket designed by Krafft Ehricke around 1953. 126 feet tall, it would be capable of orbiting 11,000 pounds of payload into a 600 mile circular orbit. Liftoff weight would be 1.3 million pounds.

The first stage, here being shown dropped, would be parachute recovered. the second stage would be expended; the third stage would be used to built up a space station. If you can’t immediately tell where stage 2 ends and stage 3 begins, it’s because stage 3 is the central cylinder, with stage 2 being wrapped around it. This sort of staging arrangement was considered fairly often in the days before they actually had to build these things.

It would be able to land 3,000 pounds on the moon or shoot 5,000 pound probes past Mars or Venus.


 Posted by at 1:49 pm
Oct 302013

Sierra Nevada Corp’s “Dream Chaser,” a copy of the NASA-Langley HL-20 configuration, had its first test flight on October 26. Dropped from a helicopter, the glide to the Edwards Air Force Base runway apparently went smoothly… except that the left main landing gear failed to deploy. The vehicle skidded off the runway and suffered damage, but Sierra Nevada says that it can be repaired.

This particualr vehicle is not meant to be orbital, just an atmospheric test craft. I don’t know if it’s *almost* the final vehicle, kind of like a smaller version of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, or if it’s just an aerodynamically identical testbed with a few of the systems. The second airframe is meant to be orbital, to fly into space atop an Atlas V.


[youtube QgdFotAkUEU]

 Posted by at 2:24 am
Oct 292013

50 People On ‘The Most Intellectual Joke I Know’

Most are, as probably expected, meh. But there are a few that made me laugh out loud.


Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?


A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.



A physicist, a mathematician and an engineer were each asked to establish the volume of a red rubber ball.


The physicist immersed the ball in a beaker full of water and measured the volume of the displaced fluid. The mathematician measured the diameter and calculated a triple integral. The engineer looked it up in his Red Rubber Ball Volume Table.




Who does Polyphemus hate more than Odysseus?




Did you hear about the man who got cooled to absolute zero?


He’s 0K now.



 Posted by at 9:31 pm