Sunday, August 31, 2003

Bram Stoker:

I'm watching Bram Stoker's Dracula, a movie I have enjoyed a couple of times before. The effect of the shadows moving independently from Gary Oldham is still quite amazing, over ten years later.

Many years ago, and I can't remember whether I saw this person in Toronto, Pasadena, or Cambridge, I met a man who was doing research on Bram Stoker and his writings. The researcher was from Boston College or University, and was a very tall, gaunt, greying Romanian. From Transylvania, in fact. One had to wonder, but those unfortunate suspicions were quickly dispelled by his friendly demeanour.

He told a story of travelling through England, tracing Bram Stoker's steps and trying to find what materials Stoker had gathered to put together the story that forever changed Europe's perception of his homeland (and raised suspicions in everyone he met). He was interested in this particular issue, because prior to the publishing of Dracula, there was very little known about the fears and traditions of central Europe. In one particular library, this researcher was able to find a book of about the right age, and when he went to check it out, he found that the person who had previously taken this book out was indeed... Bram Stoker.

Coincidence? No, of course not. You know what I think of that from my May 6 2003 post.

A handwritten post sent wirelessly from my Newton as I sat on the sofa.

 Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Jules Verne:

On this day in 1957, a nuclear test called Pascal-B was carried out in the Nevada desert, as part of the Operation Plumbbob series.

Pascal was part of a set of safety experiments carried out in unstemmed shafts at the Nevada Test Site -- Pascal-A had been detonated one month previously, and the Pascal-C shot occurred in December of the same year. A parallel series of shots, named Coulomb-A -B and -C were carried out on towers rather than in shafts.

This particular test is interesting because of a legend surrounding it. It may have inadvertently launched the first man-made satellite, preceding Sputnik by 38 days. A steel cap welded into the shaft may have been blown out the hole by the shockwave from a concrete collimator vaporized by the detonation. An upper bound on the speed of the departing cap, caught on a single frame of high speed film, is six times Earth's escape velocity - although there are plenty of energy balance reasons to think this is unlikely.

The evidence for this is scant: although I have not been able to see it, a February/March 1992 article in the Smithsonian's magazine Air & Space is often quoted, and started much of the 'manhole in space' legend. The article apparently incorrectly refers to this event as "Project Thunderwell," when in fact the launch was not the prime reason for the Plumbbob/Pascal-B test, and no shot or series was ever named Thunderwell. According to a Lowell Wood of LLNL, there was a project concept called Thunderwell that was a first look at requirements to launch spacecraft using nuclear heated steam cannons.

Enviroweb has the best documentation on the web about this event here and especially here, where an eyewitness, Robert Brownlee, talks about the expectations, calculations, and results of the Pascal-B event.

There is a very interesting tale of an internet search for the truth about this event (and how it led off in other directions, too) here.

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 Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Ares, Mars, Tir:

Mars' opposition tomorrow makes a good time to note a few points about Spirit and Opportunity, two NASA rovers speeding towards their January 24 and 25 landings on the red planet.

First, the names. Perhaps in a fit of outsourcing, they chose to use a Chinese contractor to pick the names? We are lucky we did not end up with something like "Golden Butterfly" or "Lucky Wheat Sheaf," but the names they picked are just as bad. IMNSHO.

A recent article in GCN talks about the fact that since memory is limited on the craft, they download different sets of commands at different times in the mission, effectively doing upgrades while en route. In my February 20 2003 blog, I mentioned the fact that each of these probes has their own IP address. NASA will be using these addresses during the November software upgrade, replacing Earth orbit departure and transfer orbit code with Mars orbit insertion code.

The article also talks a bit about the past problems with Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter. The lander was supposed to land in the polar cap/skirt region and give more insight into the chemistry of water, which has been so puzzling since the Viking experiments caused such excitement. However, software analyzing the movement of the landing gear mistook vibrations for an actual landing, and shut off the retrorockets far too early, dooming the probe to an uncontrolled drop. The orbiter was lost on orbit insertion because a single line of code used English measurements rather than metric.

I posted on January 21 2003 about software development, and how it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage the present commonly used s/w development pattern for quality. It struck me that en route upgrades provide a way for extending deadlines - it's like having FedEx be able to reach Mars and deliver your paper after it was due.

Given the kind of scrutiny NASA has been under, especially today with the release of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, this kind of last-ditch recovery option is probably very welcome.

 Monday, August 25, 2003

Kudos: Graham at blogger support. I have been trying to upgrade from the free version for over a month now, and could not get through.

I left a message on the help board, and even though I was not a paying customer, support arrived.

Perhaps it was the subject line: "Can't upgrade. Hey - I really want to give you money!" that got their attention...

I can't send a reply to you Graham, but thanks from the blogosphere...

Tyuratam, Alcântara:

Today was to have been the launch date for Brazil's VLS-3 (Veiculo Lançador de Satelites), or satellite launch vehicle, a new entry into the commercial satellite launch market.

On Saturday, during pre-launch testing, one of the motors apparently ignited prematurely on the pad, while technicians were still surrounding the vehicle. In the ensuing explosion and fire, twenty-one people were killed.

We easily forget that rockets are simply slightly well controlled bombs. Brazil's two previous attempts at the VLS have also failed, fortunately with no fatalities, as they were destroyed by the range safety officer after launch.

This accident is reminescent of the October 26, 1960 accident at Tyuratam, known as the Nedelin Incident, after Mitrofan Nedelin, the Commander of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces. Nedelin was under great pressure from Kruschev to deliver a successful launch, and his presence interfered greatly with normal operations where a Soviet R-16 was being hurriedly prepared for launch. Personnel was not evacuated from the area after fueling, as was required by safety regulations, and a series of compounding errors led to a horrendous event. The fully-fueled rocket exploded with about 250 people still near the launch pad, including Nedelin himself. A film of the event shows people in burning clothing trying to flee over a melting tar road. Truly horrific. Estimates of the death toll vary, ranging from 92 to 165. What is certain is that some of the very best technicians in the Soviet program were killed that day.

In the Brazilian case, at least the failure was immediately announced. It took 40 years for the Nedelin story to come out. Also, at least the hospitals in the area of the Alcântara launch facility in Brazil knew what they were dealing with for the incoming injured -- in the Soviet case, the military would not identify what chemicals the victims were covered with, which may have caused some deaths among hospital staff, due to the propellants' toxicity.

In an interesting footnote, it turns out that Leonid Brezhnev was the chairman of the investigating committee for this incident. There was no punishment recommended by the committee report - it simply noted that the guilty had been punished already.

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 Friday, August 22, 2003

Loki, Raven:

I think most academics have a peculiar sense of humor. It comes from our circulating and having meaningful conversations in too restricted a group of people. As with any group like that, a set of inside jokes and obscure references develop that outsiders cannot understand, and by which the outsiders feel threatened.

I suspect that most scientists are sticklers for literal meanings - I know I am. It's that "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" mentality that so many people hate. It's why I blogged about people saying 'momentarily.' It's why when I was sharing half an ear of corn with someone, they were so annoyed to find I had eaten every other row. It's why I could answer "...well, I only used one side..." when I had agreed to share half of the only towel in the bathroom.


John Vu, a fellow blogger of scientific bent, noted an article on academic blogs in the Chronicle of Higher Education the other day which I thought had a very interesting take on the phenomenon of pseudo-expertise (my phrase, not the author's) that emerges in blogs. People are free to hold forth on whatever they please, even if they are not experts in that field.

Initially I agreed with the view that this was not good, but then it occurred to me that this is often how intellectual progress is made. We respond to challenges from, and discoveries in, other disciplines. It's healthy to talk to people who know a lot about completely different things from you, and conversely, it is very healthy to hear from people who know a lot less than you about a particular issue.

So... What do you want to know about? I'll give you an answer to anything. It's up to you to decide whether my answer is worth anything. It's the free-market information economy, stupid.

 Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Risk revisited:

Postings will be sparse as I am heavily loaded at work... several developments underway that may fundamentally affect my future...

We shall see how far South I end up going.

 Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Chicken Little:

A Soyuz rocket launched from the Baykonur/Tyuratam complex carried Cosmos 2399 into orbit today. Cosmos 2399 is a spy satellite mission, carrying a Yantar-4KS1M electronic photoreconnaissance package.

How do I know this? Because the Russians are telling all. Amazing. Not that you get the full scoop on what exactly they will be pointing that little gadget at, but the fact that they are making information so openly available at all is simply astounding.

The other fact to note is that Cosmos 2265 (ok, its rocket booster, to be exact) is expected to re-enter the atmosphere today, hopefully over an uninhabited part of the Pacific. 2399's is expected to rain down on the 16th.

What goes up must come down, so look out for little bits of Soyuz... one comes down just about every week or so.

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 Thursday, August 07, 2003

Samuel T. Coleridge:

Someone I just came across is involved in delivering a Water Management Plan for New Mexico, and we connected because I had lived in Corrales many years ago. The New Mexico State Engineer's Office has a website on the issue.

Seeing this, and my earlier post about water in Mendoza, Argentina, reminded me that the General Accounting Office has just released a report predicting water shortages in 36 states within the next ten years under normal conditions.

This means even more tense times in U.S. relations with Canada and Mexico -- the Milagro wheat- and bean-field wars will go continental!

 Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Oppenheimer & Kurchatov, Teller & Sakharov:

Today marks 58 years since the Enola Gay dropped the Little Boy device on Hiroshima.

I thought it was worth noting that given the current debate on tactical nukes, the yield from Little Boy's explosion was about 15 kilotons, and that current tactical nukes are rated at about 5-10 kt. It surprised me to see that we got to that level of yield in a small package pretty quickly, when you consider that by 1953 we had tested a 15 kt bomb fired from a 280 mm cannon in the Grable test at NTS.

So what holds us back from doing this? Politics, really. Any arguments about treaties are spurious, since the Threshold Test Ban and Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaties really only deal with test yields above 150 kt, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (as well as the other two) always allow testing when "in the supreme national interest."

At least we got away from the "bigger is better" race, and let the Soviets win with their "Tsar Bomba," tested at 50 Mt but designed for up to 100 Mt yields. Yum - I can still feel that one in my bones, and so can you. We all have some of the Strontium 90 from that test in us.


 Saturday, August 02, 2003


Tuesday will be Neil Armstrong's birthday.

I suspect that in some far future, there are two names from this age that will survive in the collective memory of space exploration. Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin.

History is pretty harsh, and general knowledge is even more harsh. Names like Chuck Yeager, Sally Ride, John Glenn and Alan Shepard will fade into obscurity within a hundred years. Ask yourself if you know the names of any of Christopher Columbus' co-captains.

The history of political conflict between the space powers has made Gagarin's feat pretty much unknown in the West. Not that it wasn't announced -- it's just that we continue the cold war tradition of not teaching children about him. I am constantly amazed by purportedly thorough literature that refers only to the U.S. records only, as if no others existed.

It's not that the Soviets were without blame either -- feats achieved by non-communist block countries received minimal coverage there, if any. The Eagle's landing on the Moon's Sea of Tranquillity in July of 1969 was of course announced in the USSR - I am sure that the calculation was made that not announcing this particular American triumph would be more politically expensive in the long run than simply admitting defeat. The loss of the race to the Moon was a severe psychological blow to the cosmonaut corps, coming on top of Gagarin's death, which had just occurred in March of 1968. At the time of his death, Gagarin was the head of their lunar cosmonaut team.

I suspect that Armstrong's death will be an event widely publicized, given the attractiveness of the images he created. It sobers me to realize he will be 83 this week - we will be losing a lot of pioneers in the next decade.