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Monday, August 20, 2012

Reading List: Perigee

Chiles, Patrick. Perigee. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4699-5713-5.
A few years into the future, while NASA bumbles along in its bureaucratic haze and still can't launch humans into space, a commercial “new space” company, Polaris AeroSpace Lines, has taken the next step beyond suborbital tourist hops into space for the well-heeled, and begun both scheduled and charter service in aerospace planes equipped with a combined-cycle powerplant which allows them to fly anywhere on the globe, operating at Mach 10, making multiple skips off the atmosphere, and delivering up to 30 passengers and cargo to any destination in around 90 minutes. Passengers are treated to a level of service and coddling which exceeds first class, breathtaking views from above the atmosphere along the way, and apart from the steep ticket prices, no downside apart from the zero-g toilet.

In this thriller, something goes horribly wrong during a flight from Denver to Singapore chartered by a coarse and demanding Australian media mogul, and the crew and passengers find themselves not on course for their destination but rather trapped in Earth orbit with no propellant and hence no prospect of getting back until long after their life support will be exhausted. Polaris immediately begins to mount a rescue mission based upon an orbital spacecraft they have under development, but as events play out clues begin to emerge that a series of problems are not systems failures but perhaps evidence of something much darker, in which those on the front lines trying to get their people back do not know who they can trust. Eventually, Polaris has no option but to partner with insurgent individuals in the “old space” world to attempt an improvised rescue mission.

This is a very interesting book, in that it does not read like a space thriller so much as one of the classic aviation dramas such as The High and the Mighty. We have the cast of characters: a crusty mechanic, heroic commander, hot-shot first officer, resourceful flight attendant with unexpected talents, demanding passengers, visionary company president, weaselly subordinate, and square-jawed NASA types. It all works very well, and as long as you don't spend too much time thinking about mass fractions, specific impulse, orbital mechanics, and thermal protection systems, is an enjoyable read, and provides a glimpse of a plausible future for commercial space flight (point to point hypersonic service) which is little discussed among the new space community. For those who do care about the details, they follow. Be warned—some of these are major plot spoilers, so if you're planning to read the novel it's best to give them a pass until you've finished the book.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  

  • In chapter 26 we are told that the spaceplane's electricity is produced by fuel cells. This doesn't make any sense for a suborbital craft. We're also told that it is equipped with an APU and batteries with eight hours of capacity. For a plane which can fly to its destination in 90 minutes, why would you also include a fuel cell? The APU can supply power for normal operation, and in case it fails, the batteries have plenty of capacity to get you back on the ground. Also, you'd have to carry liquid hydrogen to power the fuel cells. This would require a bulky tank and make ramp operations and logistics a nightmare.
  • Not a quibble, but rather a belly laugh in chapter 28: I had not before heard the aging International Space Station called “Cattlecar Galactica”.
  • In chapter 31, when the rescue mission is about to launch, we're told that if the launch window is missed, on the next attempt the stricken craft will be “several hundred miles farther downrange”. In fact, the problem is that on the next orbit, due to the Earth's rotation, the plane of the craft's orbit will have shifted with respect to that of the launch site, and consequently the rescue mission will have to perform a plane change as part of its trajectory. This is hideously costly in terms of fuel, and it is unlikely in the extreme the rescue mission would be able to accomplish it. All existing rendezvous missions, if they miss their launch window, must wait until the next day when the launch site once again aligns with the orbital plane of the destination.
  • In chapter 47, as passenger Magrath begins to lose it, “Sweat began to bead up on his bald head and float away.” But in weightlessness, surface tension dominates all other forces and the sweat would cling and spread out over the 'strine's pate. There is nothing to make it float away.
  • In chapter 54 and subsequently, Shuttle “rescue balls” are used to transfer passengers from the crippled spaceplane to the space station. These were said to have been kept on the station since early in the program. In fact, while NASA did develop a prototype of the Personal Rescue Enclosure, they were never flown on any Shuttle mission nor launched to the station.
  • The orbital mechanics make absolutely no sense at all. One would expect a suborbital flight between Denver and Singapore to closely follow a great circle route between those airports (with possible deviations due to noise abatement and other considerations). Since most of the flight would be outside the atmosphere, weather and winds aloft would not be a major consideration. But if flight 501 had followed such a route and have continued to boost into orbit, it would have found itself in a high-inclination retrograde orbit around the Earth: going the opposite direction to the International Space Station. Getting from such an orbit to match orbits with the ISS would require more change in velocity (delta-v) than an orbital launch from the Earth, and no spacecraft in orbit would have remotely that capability. The European service vehicle already docked at the station would only have enough propellant for a destructive re-entry.

    We're told then that the flight path would be to the east, over Europe. but why would one remotely choose such a path, especially if a goal of the flight was to set records? It would be a longer flight, and much more demanding of propellant to do it in one skip as planned. But, OK, let's assume that for some reason they did decide to go the long way around. Now, for the rescue to be plausible, we have to assume two further ridiculously improbable things: first, that the inclination of the orbit resulting from the engine runaway on the flight to Singapore would match that of the station, and second, that the moment of launch just happened to be precisely when Denver was aligned with the plane of the station's orbit. Since there is no reason that the launch would have been scheduled to meet these exacting criteria, the likelihood that the spaceplane would be in an orbit reachable from the station without a large and impossible to accomplish plane change (here, I am referring to a change in the orbital plane, not catching a connecting flight) is negligible.

Spoilers end here.  

The author's career has been in the airline industry, and this shows in the authenticity of the depiction of airline operations. Notwithstanding the natters above behind the spoiler shield, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and raced through it trying to guess how it would come out.

Posted at 22:20 Permalink

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reading List: America-Lite

Gelernter, David. America-Lite. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59403-606-4.
At the end of World War II, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus. All of its industrial competitors had been devastated by the war; it was self-sufficient in most essential resources; it was the unquestioned leader in science, technology, and medicine; its cultural influence was spread around the world by Hollywood movies; and the centre of the artistic and literary world had migrated from Paris to New York. The generation which had won the war, enabled by the G.I. Bill, veterans swarmed into institutions of higher learning formerly reserved for scions of the wealthy and privileged—by 1947, fully 49% of college admissions were veterans.

By 1965, two decades after the end of the war, it was pretty clear to anybody with open eyes that it all had begun to go seriously wrong. The United States was becoming ever more deeply embroiled in a land war in Asia without a rationale comprehensible to those who paid for it and were conscripted to fight there; the centres of once-great cities were beginning a death spiral in which a culture of dependency spawned a poisonous culture of crime, drugs, and the collapse of the family; the humiliatingly defeated and shamefully former Nazi collaborator French were draining the U.S. Treasury of its gold reserves, and the U.S. mint had replaced its silver coins with cheap counterfeit replacements. In August of 1965, the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles exploded in riots, and the unthinkable—U.S. citizens battling one another with deadly force in a major city, became the prototype for violent incidents to come. What happened?

In this short book (just 200 pages in the print edition), the author argues that it was what I have been calling the “culture crash” for the last decade. Here, this event is described as the “cultural revolution”: not a violent upheaval as happened in China, but a steady process through which the keys to the élite institutions which transmit the culture from generation to generation were handed over, without a struggle, from the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) patricians which had controlled them since Colonial days, to a new intellectual class, influenced by ideas from Continental Europe, which the author calls PORGIs (post-religious globalist intellectuals). Now, this is not to say that there were not intellectuals at top-tier institutions of higher learning before the cultural revolution; but they were not in charge: those who were saw their mission in a fundamentally conservative way—to conserve the grand tradition of Western civilisation by transmitting it to each successive generation, while inculcating in them the moral compass which would make them worthy leaders in business, the military, and public affairs.

The PORGIs had no use for this. They had theory, and if the facts weren't consistent with the theory and the consequences of implementing it disastrously different from those intended, well then the facts must be faulty because the theory was crystalline perfection in itself. (And all of this became manifest well before the cognitive dissonance between academic fantasy and the real world became so great that the intellectuals had to invent postmodernism, denying the very existence of objective reality.)

The PORGIs (Well, I suppose we can at least take comfort that the intellectual high ground wasn't taken over by Corgis; imagine the chaos that would have engendered!) quickly moved to eliminate the core curricula in higher learning which taught Western history, culture, and moral tradition. This was replaced (theory being supreme, and unchallenged), with indoctrination in an ideology unmoored to the facts. Rather than individuals able to think and learn on their own, those educated by the PORGIs became servomechanisms who, stimulated by this or that keyword, would spit out a rote response: “Jefferson?” “White slaveowner!”

These, the generation educated by the PORGIs, starting around the mid 1960s, the author calls PORGI airheads. We all have our own “mental furniture” which we've accumulated over our lives—the way we make sense of the bewildering flow of information from the outside world: sorting it into categories, prioritising it, and deciding how to act upon it. Those with a traditional (pre-PORGI) education, or those like myself and the vast majority of people my age or older who figured it out on their own by reading books and talking to other people, have painfully built our own mental furniture, re-arranged it as facts came in which didn't fit with the ways we'd come to understand things, and sometimes heaved the old Barcalounger out the window when something completely contradicted our previous assumptions. With PORGI airheads, none of this obtains. They do not have the historical or cultural context to evaluate how well their pre-programmed responses fit the unforgiving real world. They are like parrots: you wave a French fry at them and they say, “Hello!” Another French fry, “Hello!” You wave a titanium billet painted to look like a French fry, “Hello!” Beak notched from the attempt to peel a titanium ingot, you try it once again.


Is there anybody who has been visible on the Internet for more than a few years who has not experienced interactions with these people? Here is my own personal collection of greatest hits.

Gelernter argues that Barack Obama is the first PORGI airhead to be elected to the presidency. What some see as ideology may be better explained as servomechanism “Hello!” response to stimuli for which his mentors have pre-programmed him. He knows nothing of World War II, or the Cold War, or of colonialism in Africa, or of the rôle of the British Empire in eradicating the slave trade. All of these were deemed irrelevant by the PORGIs and PORGI airheads who trained him. And the 53% who voted for him were made a majority by the PORGI airheads cranked out every year and injected into the bloodstream of the dying civil society by an educational system almost entirely in the hands of the enemy.

What is to be done? The author's prescription is much the same as my own. We need to break the back of the higher education (and for that matter, the union-dominated primary and secondary education) system and replace it with an Internet-based educational delivery system where students will have access to courses taught by the best pedagogues in the world (ranked in real time not just by student thumbs up and down, but by objectively measured outcomes, such as third-party test scores and employment results). Then we need independent certification agencies, operating in competition with one another much like bond rating agencies, which issue “e-diplomas” based on examinations (not just like the SAT and bar exams, but also in-person and gnarly like a Ph.D. defence for the higher ranks). The pyramid of prestige would remain, as well as the cost structure: a Doctorate in Russian Literature from Harvard would open more doors at the local parking garage or fast food joint than one from Bob's Discount Degrees, but you get what you pay for. And, in any case, the certification would cost a tiny fraction of spending your prime intellectually productive years listening to tedious lectures given by graduate students marginally proficient in your own language.

The PORGIs correctly perceived the U.S. educational system to be the “keys to the kingdom”. They began, in Gramsci's long march through the institutions, to put in place the mechanisms which would tilt the electorate toward their tyrannical agenda. It is too late to reverse it; the educational establishment must be destroyed. “Destroyed?”, you ask—“These are strong words! Do you really mean it? Is it possible?” Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational global data network! Record stores…gone! Book stores…gone! Universities….

In the Kindle edition (which costs almost as much as the hardcover), the end-notes are properly bidirectionally linked to citations in the text, but the index is just a useless list of terms without links to references in the text. I'm sorry if I come across as a tedious “index hawk”, but especially when reviewing a book about declining intellectual standards, somebody has to do it.

Posted at 22:46 Permalink

Monday, August 13, 2012

Reading List: Rockets and People. Vol. 2

Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 2. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2006. ISBN 978-1-4700-1508-4 NASA SP-2006-4110.
This is the second book of the author's four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of Challenge to Apollo (April 2008), the definitive Western history of the Soviet space program.

Volume 2 of Chertok's chronicle begins with his return from Germany to the Soviet Union, where he discovers, to his dismay, that day-to-day life in the victorious workers' state is much harder than in the land of the defeated fascist enemy. He becomes part of the project, mandated by Stalin, to first launch captured German V-2 missiles and then produce an exact Soviet copy, designated the R-1. Chertok and his colleagues discover that making a copy of foreign technology may be more difficult than developing it from scratch—the V-2 used a multitude of steel and non-ferrous metal alloys, as well as numerous non-metallic components (seals, gaskets, insulation, etc.) which were not produced by Soviet industry. But without the experience of the German rocket team (which, by this time, was in the United States), there was no way to know whether the choice of a particular material was because its properties were essential to its function or simply because it was readily available in Germany. Thus, making an “exact copy” involved numerous difficult judgement calls where the designers had to weigh the risk of deviation from the German design against the cost of standing up a Soviet manufacturing capacity which might prove unnecessary.

After the difficult start which is the rule for missile projects, the Soviets managed to turn the R-1 into a reliable missile and, through patience and painstaking analysis of telemetry, solved a mystery which had baffled the Germans: why between 10% and 20% of V-2 warheads had detonated in a useless airburst high above the intended target. Chertok's instrumentation proved that the cause was aerodynamic heating during re-entry which caused the high explosive warhead to outgas, deform, and trigger the detonator.

As the Soviet missile program progresses, Chertok is a key player, participating in the follow-on R-2 project (essentially a Soviet Redstone—a V-2 derivative, but entirely of domestic design), the R-5 (an intermediate range ballistic missile eventually armed with nuclear warheads), and the R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, which launched Sputnik, Gagarin, and whose derivatives remain in service today, providing the only crewed access to the International Space Station as of this writing.

Not only did the Soviet engineers have to build ever larger and more complicated hardware, they essentially had to invent the discipline of systems engineering all by themselves. While even in aviation it is often possible to test components in isolation and then integrate them into a vehicle, working out interface problems as they manifest themselves, in rocketry everything interacts, and when something goes wrong, you have only the telemetry and wreckage upon which to base your diagnosis. Consider: a rocket ascending may have natural frequencies in its tankage structure excited by vibration due to combustion instabilities in the engine. This can, in turn, cause propellant delivery to the engine to oscillate, which will cause pulses in thrust, which can cause further structural stress. These excursions may cause control actuators to be over-stressed and possibly fail. When all you have to go on is a ragged cloud in the sky, bits of metal raining down on the launch site, and some telemetry squiggles for a second or two before everything went pear shaped, it can be extraordinarily difficult to figure out what went wrong. And none of this can be tested on the ground. Only a complete systems approach can begin to cope with problems like this, and building that kind of organisation required a profound change in Soviet institutions, which had previously been built around imperial chief designers with highly specialised missions. When everything interacts, you need a different structure, and it was part of the genius of Sergei Korolev to create it. (Korolev, who was the author's boss for most of the years described here, is rightly celebrated as a great engineer and champion of missile and space projects, but in Chertok's view at least equally important was his talent in quickly evaluating the potential of individuals and filling jobs with the people [often improbable candidates] best able to do them.)

In this book we see the transformation of the Soviet missile program from slavishly copying German technology to world-class innovation, producing, in short order, the first ICBM, earth satellite, lunar impact, images of the lunar far side, and interplanetary probes. The missile men found themselves vaulted from an obscure adjunct of Red Army artillery to the vanguard of Soviet prestige in the world, with the Soviet leadership urging them on to ever greater exploits.

There is a tremendous amount of detail here—so much that some readers have deemed it tedious: I found it enlightening. The author dissects the Nedelin disaster in forensic detail, as well as the much less known 1980 catastrophe at Plesetsk where 48 died because a component of the rocket used the wrong kind of solder. Rocketry is an exacting business, and it is a gift to generations about to embark upon it to imbibe the wisdom of one who was present at its creation and learned, by decades of experience, just how careful one must be to succeed at it. I could go on regaling you with anecdotes from this book but, hey, if you've made it this far, you're probably going to read it yourself, so what's the point? (But if you do, I'd suggest you read Volume 1 [May 2012] first.)

As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and an online PDF edition is available.

A Kindle edition is available which is perfectly readable but rather cheaply produced. Footnotes simply appear in the text in-line somewhere after the reference, set in small red type. The index references page numbers from the print edition which are not included in the Kindle version, and hence are completely useless. If you have a workable PDF application on your reading device, I'd go with the NASA PDF, which is not only better formatted but free.

The original Russian edition is available online.

Posted at 22:25 Permalink