Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Calls for More Gun Control

Elliot Rodger is the latest mass shooter whose actions provoke calls for "more gun control".  It is easy in the heat of the moment to listen to emotion rather than reason.  It helps to look at the numbers.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of seven recent mass shooting incidents that grabbed media attention.  The list has names,  where it happened,  and a judgement as to why.  There are two patterns,  one predominant. 
Of the seven,  four were known to have mental problems,  but were able to get guns legally,  because no court ever found them crazy and institutionalized them.  That’s the criterion currently used to “exclude” people judged to be crazy from getting guns,  and it clearly doesn’t work right. 

In the case of Jared Loughner,  the store that sold him his guns was reported as definitely uncomfortable doing so,  but had no grounds to deny the sale.  The background check revealed no court judgement as to Loughner’s sanity.  They were faced with a person who obviously had mental problems,  but a clean record as to his sanity.  Yet his friends,  his college faculty,  and his doctors all knew he had problems. 

Elliot Rodger.......CA girl shooter.........crazy,  never institutionalized
Wade Page.........Sikh temple shooter..seduced by extremist politics
Jared Loughner...AZ rep shooter.........crazy,  never institutionalized
James Holmes.....CO theater shooter...crazy,  never institutionalized
Harris&Klebold..Columbine school......crazy,  never institutionalized
Adam Lanza.......Newtown CT school..crazy,  never institutionalized, criminal act
Nidal Hasan........Ft. Hood...................seduced by extremist religion

Of the seven,  there was one (Lanza) widely-known to have serious mental problems,  who was denied owning guns by his mother,  but still encouraged to use them for sport under his mother’s supervision.  This didn’t “work” either,  since he killed his mother to get her guns and go shoot up that school.  Guns (even locked up) in the same house with a crazy person just isn’t a good idea.

The other two in the list were seduced by extremist politics or religion into committing their crimes.  This is the same phenomena that creates home-grown terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston,  and most recently a Florida resident who became a suicide bomber in Syria.  It is a significant enough effect to worry about. 

Dealing with the Mental Health Leak

What this tells me is that the way we do background checks is very flawed with respect to mental health problems.  It is currently an “either-or” choice based on a court judgement of insanity.  What we need is more gradual and less legally-formalized. 

The sense that a potential gun customer “isn’t quite right” should trigger a deeper look than the simple records search background check for a court judgement.  It should trigger the local police doing interviews of associates and health providers as to their perceptions of mental fitness. 

The idea is increasing impediments with increasing evidence of mental problems,  not just an “on-off switch set too high”,  as it is now.  Had that been in place,  it is likely that 4 of the 7 incidents listed would not have taken place.  But,  doing it effectively but fairly will require thought,  debate,  and compromise. 

Dealing with Seduction by Extremism

This applies to explosives as well as guns.  In addition to the two mass shooter cases listed,  plus the Tsarnaev brothers,  and the recent Florida suicide bomber,  there was also the Oklahoma City bomber.  All of these were known to be believers in either extremist politics or extremist religion before committing their acts. 

The same sort of idea should be used:  increasing impediments to gun (or potentially-explosive materials) purchases with increasing evidence of extremist belief.  Exactly how to do that fairly will require thought,  debate,  and compromise. 

Other Observations

The two main gun control schemes popular in politics are magazine size limits,  and a ban on semi-automatic rifles that cosmetically-resemble military machine guns.  Neither would be effective,  as some simple calculations demonstrate. 

                Clip Size Limits

For an out in-the-open scenario,  shots must be aimed to hit people.  That takes about two seconds per shot for a well-trained shooter,  with recent practice.  It also takes about 5 seconds to change a clip. 

To get off 100 shots with 30-round clips will take about 60 seconds per full clip,  three full clips,  with three clip changes (15 more seconds),  plus 10 more rounds out of the fourth clip (20 more seconds).  That’s 100 shots in 215 seconds.

Using instead 8-round clips (16 seconds to empty),  the same 100 shots requires 12 full clips (12 changes for 60 seconds) and 4 shots out of a thirteenth (8 more seconds).  That totals to 260 seconds.  The difference is only 45 seconds in almost 4 minutes time.  Limiting clip size will not have a significant effect.

For an enclosed-space scenario,  shots need not be aimed,  because people are tightly-packed together in the worst case,  such as a classroom.  It takes about a half-second between trigger pulls.  It still takes 5 seconds to change clips.

100 shots with 30-round clips:  3 full clips (45 seconds plus 15 seconds changing 3 clips) plus 10 shots from the 4th clip (5 more seconds).  That’s 65 seconds for 100 shots.

100 shots with 8-round clips: 12 full clips at 4 seconds each plus 60 seconds changing clips 12 times) plus 4 rounds (2 seconds) from the thirteenth clip.  That’s 100 shots in 110 seconds. 

The difference is still only 45 seconds.  Having to change more clips doubles the time,  but both times are still quite short.  The smaller clip is just not that much of an impediment to kill lots of people.    

                Ban on Semi-Automatic Weapons that Look Like Machine Guns

It’s a semi-automatic rifle with a firing rate of 1 aimed shot every 2 seconds,  or 2 non-aimed shots every second,  no matter what it looks like.  Same firing rate.  No difference in how fast one can kill with it.  So,  what’s the point of banning cosmetic appearance? 

                Response Times

There’s perfectly-good reasons to declare gun free zones today,  just as in the Old West.  But you have to defend them,  or the people therein are sitting-duck targets.  Towns being small in the Old West,  an armed deputy could be anywhere in town in 60 seconds at a dogtrot.  That actually worked quite well.

The shooting scenario times calculated above range from 1 minute to just over 4 minutes.  That’s why the Old West 1 minute response worked as well as it did,  and it is why the same standard applies today. 


Fix the mental health leak in the background check process.  It’s the most effective thing we could do,  by far. 

Forget the rest of the popular gun control proposals.  They’re demonstrably ineffective. 

Cut police emergency response times nearer to 1 minute.  If this takes armed guards on site,  then so be it.  Just make sure they are trained as peace officers,  they’ll need to be.  

Start thinking about how to impede gun (and explosive materials) purchases by those known to hold extremist beliefs.

Update 6-7-14:

The latest shooter incident at Pacific College actually proves my points about gun-free zones.  The local law enforcement confirms that if the student with the pepper spray had not acted to take-on the shooter,  the death toll would have been worse.  That proves my first point about the required response time to defend a gun free zone.

The fact that the student with the pepper spray was successful,  being an almost-unarmed civilian,  was due to the shooter's poor choice of weapon.  He was using a shotgun,  not a clip-fed weapon.   The extended time to reload gave the student his chance to take the shooter down.

In a reverse way,  this proves my second point,  because this would not have worked,  had the shooter been using a clip-fed weapon.  That would have required the student to have been armed equally or better,  and to have been trained to do this kind of dangerous work.

My second point is: defenders of gun free zones need to be real peace officers with real training and proper weapons.   Civilians (including school teachers) with concealed-carry permits,  do not qualify.  Just "bite the bullet" and hire qualified guards.  That's the right decision.

Update 6-8-14:

A version of this article appeared as a guest column in the Waco Tribune-Herald newspaper today (Sunday).

Friday, April 18, 2014

Congrats to Spacex

News reports today (Friday 4-18-2014) show (1) successful launch of Falcon-9R,  (2) successful injection of Dragon onto orbit,  targeted for rendezvous with ISS Sunday,  and (3) data received from 1st stage of Falcon-9R for 8 seconds after (after !!!!) landing in the Atlantic.

Congrats to Spacex!!!  Very,  very,  very well done!!!


Update 4-27-2014:  news in the last few days indicates two things:  (1) Spacex is suing the US government to break the government-mandated monopoly held by ULA in the military payload launch business,  and (2) it appears more and more likely that Spacex will build its private launch facility in far south Texas.  Both are very good news indeed.

Update 5-15-14:  In recent days we have seen a court-ordered stay forbidding the purchase of RD-180 engines from Russia for ULA's Atlas-5,  followed by a vacating of that very stay,  based on government agency testimony.

Testimony that buying those engines from a company run by an individual under sanction,  does not violate said sanction!  "Curioser and curioser," said Alice.

And,  we have seen that same Russian company,  via its sanctioned executive,  say that it will not sell any more RD-180 engines to the US for purposes of military launch,  nor will it provide product support for those already sold.

Now,  ULA has engines in inventory to support the next block of military launches using Atlas-5,  but will get no product support from Russia anymore.  This is the block of launches that Spacex was denied access to competing for (provoking the lawsuit).

Does it not seem stupid in the extreme to depend on rocket engines from what is now a hostile power,  for our military space launches?  Does anybody else get that impression?

Please comment!!


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fixing Government

This started as a conversation between two friends of mine over an article from Harvard Business School.  One of them sent it to me for my take. 

Here is the original article,  which you may interpret for yourself:

The following tidbit from Harvard Business School about world rankings of countries may inject a little reality into the basic political belief system of many (or maybe its too late):
… While the U.S. enjoys the second highest per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $45,336, it ranks in an underperforming 16th place overall [world rankings]... The U.S. ranks 70th in health, ... 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety.

More surprising is the fact that despite being the home country of global tech heavyweights Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, and so on, the U.S. ranks a disappointing 23rd in access to the Internet. “It’s astonishing that for a country that has Silicon Valley, lack of access to information is a red flag,” notes Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which oversees the index.

If this index is an affront to your sensibilities, the U.S. remains in first place for the number of incarcerated citizens per capita, adult onset diabetes and for believing in angels.
New Zealand is ranked in first place in social progress. Interestingly, it ranks only 25th on GDP per capita, which means the island of the long white cloud is doing a far better job than America when it comes to meeting the need of its people. In order, the top 10 is rounded out by Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark and Australia.
Unsurprisingly these nations all happen to rank highly in the 2013 U.N. World Happiness Report with Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden among the top five.
So, what of the U.S? In terms of happiness, we rank 17th, trailing neighboring Mexico.
We find ourselves languishing for the very fact we have allowed corporate America to hijack the entire Republican Party, and some parts of the Democratic Party. This influence has bought corporations and the rich a rigged tax code that has redistributed wealth from the middle class to the rich over the course of the past three decades. This lack of shared prosperity and opportunity has retarded our social progress.
America’s rapid descent into impoverished nation status is the inevitable result of unchecked corporate capitalism. By every measure, we look like a broken banana republic. Not a single U.S. city is included in the world’s top 10 most livable cities. Only one U.S. airport makes the list of the top 100 in the world. Our roads, schools and bridges are falling apart, and our trains — none of them high-speed — are running off their tracks.
With 95 percent of all economic gains funneled to the richest 1 percent over the course of the last decade, and a tax code that has starved the federal government of revenues to invest in public infrastructure, America will be a country divided by those who have and those who have not… 

My friend Ed Coleman’s take on it:

This is a tough story to read . . . but believable.  I do not blame the entire sad state of affairs on big business and rich people.  I suggest some of the problems belong to the conservative evangelical religious people, political ideologues of all persuasions and the out of mainstream media folks. The cable and internet has become an outlet for extremists, liars and haters.  The sad part is the public seems very vulnerable to these organizations and people.  I have no simple solution and can only hope that this too will fade into the past.

Ed Coleman 

My friend Byron Hinderer’s take on it:


I agree with you to a degree. .

However, I believe the disaster began with the greed plus economic power of big banks, big business and power brokers. 

The disaster has been and is being supported by their using the mainstream media to so effectively propagandize so many well-intended but economically gullible persons into believing in the bogus religion of "ultra-conservatism/Libertarianism".   

The propaganda of this religion is incredibly convincing and enticing to persons who have no real clue about banking, big business or macro economics -- but think they do. 

What the ultra-conservatives/Libertarians have been conned into believing does not even begin to solve the nation's problems. Instead, it exacerbates the disaster! 

Sadly, so many persons in the US today believe ultra-liberalism and ultra-conservatism/Libertarianism are the only two viable philosophies. That is not now and never has been true.  

The ultra-liberals in our society are just as disastrously far off base -- but in an entirely different way.  This fact, however is not a valid or even logical reason for supporting the economic disaster that is ultra-conservatism/Libertarianism.  

One of the saddest and most dangerous of all human foibles is the one of a person not being aware of what they do not know, but deeply believe they really do know.  


My take on it,  sent to both:

I think you're both right.

I gauge people's beliefs (in an admittedly distorted sampling) by perusing the letters to editor in the local paper.  Around Waco out of dozens of chronic letter writers,  there's 1 or 2 so-called liberals,  and the rest so-called arch-conservatives/libertarians.  If you want to use those very misleading labels.  What they seem to believe about the hot button issues is almost always arrant nonsense.  

Each seems to believe in the associated political "touchstone" agendas,  lock,  stock,  and barrel.  Which is sad,  because those touchstone belief systems are partly right,  mostly wrong,  and for the most part entirely irrelevant,  on both sides.  The net effect is that voters on both sides are very dangerously misinformed / uninformed about what is really happening.  

This trouble extends to all arenas,  not just politics,  because everything,  even things about science,  have been super-politicized and made items of political belief instead of truth.  That's where the other groups Ed cites come into the picture.  All these different belief systems end up allying with one or the other political group in the quest for money and power (those two go together in any system where there are no controls on greed).  You cannot be a group member if you don't believe in every agenda item,  no matter how wrong it may be.  We've all seen it.  

I think the overall top-level "sketch" of what has happened devolves merely to extreme and uncontrolled greed,  and where the money is and goes ("follow the money").  We live in a corporate welfare state run for the benefit of the top several gigantic corporations. They have bought most or all of the elected and unelected government officials,  who work for them,  not us.  

Our government has degenerated into nothing but a pickpocket function to move cash from the rest of us to their pockets.  A few rich pirates have made economic slaves of all the rest of us.  Our situation is not unique,  this is a very widespread problem in both space and time.  We've seen this problem before,  in all wide-open market societies,  for at least 10 millennia.  Probably much longer than that.

This trouble is inevitable if you do not control the influence of big money in your politics,  regardless of the type of government you choose (only one example:  Russia,  both Soviet and post Soviet).  Unfortunately,  this was left out of our experimental revolutionary government design by the founding fathers.  They,  too,  suffered from it,  although they did not realize it.  It was the fundamental cause of the Burr-Hamilton duel,  among many other problems unrecognized as warnings back then.  

In two+ centuries of neglect since then by the rest of us,  that "cancer" has spread essentially everywhere in our society. It may well be fatal,  as the only feasible "cure" I see for the government portion is armed revolution.  Our government is now so wholly owned by these pirates that it is virtually impossible they would ever vote for anything to change that ugly status quo.  


Byron commented back on what I sent my two friends:


Well stated. 


My closing comments here:

There are many things the British did,  and still do,  with their politics and type of government that are objectionable to us Americans.  That is why we had a revolution a little over two centuries ago. 

But,  there are two things the British do,  that I wish we would adopt,  adapt,  and improve.  Doing this might avert a second American revolution,  but as stated above,  I see vanishingly-small probability of ever getting this done peacefully,  within the system we have.

Here are the two things:


The Brits do not allow private monies to be used in election campaigns.  Everyone gets the same tax-supported budget with which to run for office.  That means the common man can actually run for office,  something which disappeared long ago here in America.  Anyone caught campaigning with private money goes to jail,  and they really do mean it! 

The net effect is that their government is not wholly-owned by private interests,  the way ours is.  We would have to implement this at both the primary and general election levels separately,  in order to root out all the evil. 


The Brits severely restrict the time window in which the political campaigning for an office can occur.  That window is “proportional” to the importance of the office and the size of the constituency.  Anyone caught campaigning outside that window goes to jail.  Even the prime minister only has a few weeks to make his case for election. 

This has the effect of keeping their elected officials on-the-job the vast majority of their term in office,  instead of out on the campaign trail not doing their jobs nearly the entire term,  the way our system has corrupted itself.  Again,  we would need to implement this at both the primary and general election levels. 

What we face:  

Either we amend the Constitution we have and correct the corruption that has overwhelmed us,  or we have a revolution and start over with a new Constitution which includes these changes.  Or else we and our descendents all die as the economic slaves that we already are.  Either way,  it is critical to eliminate private money from our politics and our government.  I’d like to do it peacefully,  from within the system.  There’s less mess to clean up afterward. 

But,  as I said above,  I fear there is essentially zero probability of ever getting it done without a real blood-in-the-streets revolution.  An awful lot of people would have to wake up and reject all the lies and propaganda they’ve been believing,  for peaceful change to happen.  

Hope springs eternal,  though.  Please wake up out there!

Update Easter Sunday 4-20-2014:   Happy Easter to all!

This conversation about corrupted government and its potential cures continues in the comments.  Feel free to peruse them.  

In the Easter Sunday 4-20-14 Waco "Trib" is an article by Jim Dunnam about the influence of corporations vs people in our government and our public life.  It would seem that some others have noticed that we all live in a giant-corporate welfare state.  That is encouraging.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cold War 2 ?

This article was published (in edited form) as a guest column in the Waco “Tribune Herald” Sunday 3-16-2014.   Two important things got left out to make it fit the page: (1) a list of all the consequences of a new Cold War,  not just the effects on US access to space,  and (2) why I thought Hillary Clinton was wrong to back-pedal her comparison of Putin to Hitler.  The entire article as originally submitted is posted here.

Cold War 2 ?   
The situation with Russia invading Ukraine just keeps getting worse and worse,  albeit slowly.  I agree with another guest column writer:  this is probably the start of a second cold war between the US and Russia. 

We’ve seen this brute force thing before.  Hillary Clinton was exactly correct to compare Putin’s Russian troops in the Crimea with Hitler’s taking of Czechoslovakia. 

I think she was wrong to backpedal (“clarify”) those comments,  but that is what our politicians seem to do.   Evidently,  there are no real statesmen in the bunch. 

Anybody who thinks Putin will stop at taking the Crimea away from Ukraine is living in a dream world.  He was the leader of the old Soviet secret police (KGB),  for whom the US was always the enemy,  first and foremost.  People really do not change significantly in the way they approach the world.  

Putin is intent on rebuilding the old Russian empire (a.k.a. the Soviet Union),  by reconquering the “republics” that broke away when the Soviet Union broke up.  He wants to do that,  plus he wants to defeat the US in any way possible,  just as he did when he headed the KGB.

This is going to have a variety of consequences that will affect us all.  One may well be a return to the old nuclear missile arms race.  Downside:  one mistake and we all die horribly.  Upside:  there will be a few more jobs for those few of us who are (or were) defense industry engineers.  We’ve seen this before. 

Another is that cooperation with the Russians on anything geopolitical will simply go away.  That means you can forget any Russian help with either Syria or Iran.  No matter how badly folks in those two countries misbehave,  the Russians are not likely to be hurt by it,  while we certainly are. 

Our European allies will prove faithless to one extent or another.  This is because they are critically-dependent upon natural gas from Russia,  and they have been for some years now.  Sanctions will therefore be less effective than hoped,  at best. 

Europe’s reluctance to confront Putin is quite understandable,  but it’s also quite disappointing.  So,  be prepared for the US to go it alone,  or to just give up.  You name the issue.  There are many. 

Now,  don’t get me wrong,  there are good folks in Russia.  But,  Putin ain’t one of ‘em.  It’s time to face that unpleasant fact. 

He’s not that old,  so we’ll be faced with his misbehavior for many years to come.  And there’s always Putin clones waiting in the wings when he’s gone,  a dismal prospect at best.   

One of these effects,  that you might not ordinarily think of,  is how US astronauts get to the International Space Station (ISS).  This is a station that we Americans mostly paid for.  With the space shuttle retired,  our astronauts have been hitching rides in Russian Soyuz launches. 

As this new Cold War escalates,  you should expect that our access to our own space station will get held hostage to Russian geopolitical aims.  I predict that this will come right from the top (Putin).  It surely would be nice if we had a way to launch our own astronauts to our own space station,  wouldn’t it? 

The decision to rely solely upon the Russians is starting to look like the egregiously-bad decision that it always was.  Too bad nobody paid effective attention to this years ago.  Too bad that Congress failed to belly-up to the bar,  and properly fund a suitable follow-on US spacecraft,  commercial or otherwise.

It is possible to fix this one issue reasonably quickly,  but only with major amounts of egg on many bureaucrat’s faces.  There is a funded US commercial space access program,  scheduled to provide manned flights no sooner than 2017.  There are three competing teams vying to provide this capability. 

The drawn-out schedule is in part due to stingy funding from Congress,  and in part from NASA bureaucrats wanting to protect their favored contractors: Boeing,  Lockheed-Martin,  and their monopoly-alliance ULA (United Space Alliance). 

Of the three competitors,  it is my opinion that Spacex could get there first with a manned version of its Dragon capsule,  which in unmanned form is already delivering cargo to the ISS.  They got there about a year ahead of their cargo program competition,  Orbital Sciences.  This was in spite of a similar deliberately-slow cargo program schedule from NASA. 

Dragon was actually planned for manned operation from the start.  Elon Musk,  owner of Spacex,  is no fool.  He wants to be paid by NASA for the work he has already done,  and for the work still left to do.  Once fully paid,  he will fly a manned Dragon capsule so fast it will make your head swim,  I predict.   

The hold-up here is not Spacex or its capsule,  it is NASA’s slow schedule.  The first manned flights of the three competitors’ vehicles cannot be sooner than 2017.  That would be Spacex,  Boeing with its CST-100 capsule (a scaled-back NASA Orion capsule),  and Sierra Nevada Corporation with its Dreamchaser spaceplane. 

This is just my opinion,  but I think Spacex could fly Dragon manned within 6 months to a year,  given full “crash” funding.  I think Boeing might be about a year away from flying on a “crash” basis.  Dreamchaser might be 1 to 2 years away,  given sufficient “crash” funding,  since spaceplanes are just harder to do than capsules,  even today. 

I see here an opportunity to frustrate Putin,  instead of the other way around.  If we were to fly our commercial crew transport sooner rather than later,  we would no longer be hostage to Putin’s whims,  in this one particular area.  This is important,  write your representation about it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On-Orbit Repair and Assembly Facility

This idea was born from the confluence of three things:  (1) the physics of temperature control inside a thermal radiation enclosure,  (2) the concept of flying just a shuttle cargo bay and manipulator arm as a permanently-orbiting item,  and (3) the promise of the mechanical counter-pressure (MCP) approach as a means to a supple space suit.   Update 2-21-14 in red below,  just before "conclusions".  Update 3-29-14 in blue,  appended at the end. 

Combining these into a real on-orbit repair and assembly facility addresses two needs that we know we have.  One is the on-orbit maintenance and repair capability that proved so valuable with the Space Shuttle,  as regards the Hubble Telescope repairs,  and some others.  We already know we need to restore that capability now that the Shuttle is retired from service.  (This does mean going to the item needing repair,  a significant on-orbit maneuvering capability.)

The other is related to the assembly techniques used for the International Space Station (ISS),  but goes far beyond that capability.  ISS assembly involved docking of modules,  hooking up large quick-disconnects for plumbing and electrical,  and the turning of fairly large nuts and bolts (which proved quite difficult).  We need to add the capabilities of doing small,  detailed work in wiring,  plumbing,  the turning of very small nuts and bolts,  and multiple kinds of riveting. 

The ability to do in-space assembly including astronaut’s fine motor skills makes possible the on-orbit assembly of vehicles and objects that are too wide to launch within the payload shrouds of existing (or contemplated) launch rockets.  One very pertinent example would be the lander vehicles needed for manned surface missions at Mars.  These designs tend to exceed 10 meters diameter,  in form factors that are stable for landing on rough ground. 

Earlier Related Articles

There are articles already published here on “exrocketman” that relate to two of the list of three things in paragraph 1 above.  As regards item (2),  see “End of an Era Need Not Be End of a Capability”,  dated 8-2-11.  This dealt with launching what amounts to a shuttle bay,  manipulator arm,  and operator’s cabin into orbit as a permanent item manned intermittently at need. 

As regards item (3),  see “Fundamental Design Criteria for Alternative Space Suit Approaches”,  dated 1-21-11.  This one dealt with minimum requirements for pure oxygen breathing pressures and the corresponding compression levels balancing it in the body.  It has direct application to mechanical counter-pressure suit designs,  but applies to any design. 

Item 1 Radiation Enclosure for Temperature Control

Objects in space get very hot on the side facing the sun,  and very cold on the side facing darkness.  This causes all kinds of misfit and alignment problems for any kind of assembly work,  due to thermal expansion and contraction.  Astronauts handling items in this condition need thick insulated gloves to avoid thermal injuries to their hands.  Thick gloves greatly reduce dexterity.  Thin gloves with far greater dexterity might be possible for some suit designs,  if this insulation requirement were avoidable. 

If the assembly and repair space were pressurized and heated as a shirtsleeve environment,  the warm atmosphere would equalize and stabilize workpiece temperatures at something tolerable barehanded.  But,  such a hangar must be pumped down to zero pressure to open the door for access,  and that pump-down process is inherently inefficient.  Atmosphere gets lost,  inevitably. 

With the cost of breathing gas launched to space quite high,  this loss is intolerable.  That points toward an unpressurized work space with astronauts in suits.  One benefit of the unpressurized enclosure approach is that it can be very lightweight and easy to build. 

If the enclosure were a spaceframe grid of light tubing with six-way corner connectors,  then reflective sheeting can be hung between the tubes.  With lighting hung on the inside of that frame,  light bounces inside such that all physical objects approach whatever equilibrium the power of the lighting supports.  The low emittance (reflective outside as well as inside) of the enclosure sheeting controls the power radiated to deep space.  The sheeting exterior reflectance also limits what can be absorbed from the sun. 

Basically,  one adjusts the lighting power inside the enclosure to achieve room-temperature work pieces inside.  Having the lighting come from many directions (lights all over the inside of the spaceframe) banishes shadows,  making workpiece visibility far better.   Inside such an enclosure,  the astronaut’s suit need only supply compression for breathing purposes.  Thick insulating protection from hot sunlight and cold darkness are not necessary.  That makes a supple space suit an integral part of this capability.  And,  in an unpressurized enclosure,  opening the “door” (one wall) loses no breathing gas.  This concept is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Temperature Control in a Radiation Enclosure

Item 2 Having Shuttle Bay Servicing Capability Without a Shuttle

The tremendously valuable repair capability we had with the Space Shuttle derived from its cargo bay (with its work-piece restraints),  and its manipulator arm.  The arm operator had a pressurized cabin with windows,  which made many jobs far easier to do.  In addition,  the arm itself was a stable place for spacewalking astronauts to “stand” while working outside.  The problem was the huge expense of launching all of this gear each and every time it was needed,  as part of a very large craft. 

A less expensive but equivalent capability would be the essential cargo-bay restraint frame with manipulator arm,  and operator’s cabin,  launched once,  and simply left on-orbit.  This facility would be intermittently manned when needed,  using a much smaller craft as the crew taxi.  This basic concept is shown in Figure 2.  To make it practical,  this facility would also need a very significant on-orbit maneuver capability,  since many of the items that might need servicing would not have maneuvering capability for themselves. 

Figure 2 – “Shuttle Bay Only” On-Orbit Concept

Item 3 Supple Space Suit

Modern space suits are gas balloons around the human body.  These must be well-insulated against hot and cold extremes,  and must include some sort of cooling system to deal with the waste heat and moisture produced by human exertion.   No such balloon suit so equipped has allowed dexterous activity.  Small plumbing and wiring,  riveting,  and turning small nuts and bolts,  are all simply impossible,  when dressed like this for space. 

An alternative vacuum protection approach is the so-called mechanical counter pressure (MCP) space suit.  In terms of its internal tissue pressures,  the body does not know gas pressure from mechanical pressure exerted upon the skin.  What is required is tissue pressures that balance the breathing gas pressure in the lungs,  which in turn must supply an adequate partial pressure of oxygen.  This is complicated by the “displacement” effect of water vapor at body temperature inside the very wet spaces of the lungs.  (From a suit stiffness standpoint,  lower compression is better dexterity,  no matter the approach.)

Minimum compression is achieved with pure dry oxygen breathing gas feeds.   A rebreather with carbon dioxide absorber and a makeup oxygen supply is the most practical approach to that kind of breathing gas supply.  The minimum partial pressure of oxygen is a fuzzy limit;  there is really little reason to make this any higher than in sea level air (1 atm total pressure).  Many aircraft applications do not require the use of supplemental oxygen until one reaches 10,000 foot (3.0 km) altitudes (0.6878 atm total pressure).  The truth probably lies between those figures. 

Air composition (20.94 volume percent oxygen) and altitude pressure determine the partial pressure of oxygen out in the dry air.  That would be 0.2094 atm at sea level,  and 0.1440 atm at 10,000 feet.  In the wet lungs,  one must “displace” some of the dry air with water vapor at body temperature (0.0620 atm at 98.6 F or 37.0 C).  Subtracting this reduces the partial pressure of the dry air (and its components) at the same total pressure.  Those in-lung partial pressures of oxygen would be 0.1474 atm at sea level,  and 0.0820 atm at 10,000 feet.  The displacement pressure is absolute:  it does not scale with total. 

Adding that water vapor pressure back in determines the total dry pure-oxygen breathing gas feed in that kind of a space suit.  That is the compression the suit must achieve on the body,  regardless of how it is achieved,  in order to balance the breathing gas total pressure.  All of this is shown in Figure 3.  

Figure 3 – Determining Oxygen Pressure and Suit Compression from Equivalent Altitude Conditions

In a two-gas system,  one adds the water vapor and in-lung oxygen pressures together to determine the dry oxygen partial pressure in the dry two gas mixture being fed.  Its composition percentage then determines the total breathing gas pressure,  and thus the required suit compression level. 

The first successful MCP suits were a series of elastic leotard garments developed by Dr. Paul Webb in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  These garments squeezed the body for tissue compression,  and were combined with a pressure breathing helmet and breathing tidal volume bladder,  as shown in Figure 4.  Note the thin compression gloves.  Complete with backpack and helmet,  this rig weighed 85 pounds.  Dr. Webb typically used breathing gas pressures between 0.22 and 0.29 atm,  more than necessary.  

Figure 4 – Webb’s “Elastic Leotard” Version of an MCP Space Suit

These experimental suits provided a great deal of dexterity and mobility.  They were a bit difficult to don and doff,  being 6 or 7 layers of essentially very tight pantyhose material,  but were much lighter,  and eliminated completely the need for a cooling system (just sweat right through the porous garment).  Small tears do not lead to loss of compression.  See Figures 5 and 6 for examples of high mobility,  done in the atmosphere at elevated breathing pressures counterbalanced by suit compression,  using a “hookah rig” air supply.  See Figure 7 for a photo of the test subject pedaling an ergonometer in deadly vacuum,  wearing nothing but the elastic leotard rig. 

Figure 5 – Backbend Mobility in MCP “Elastic Leotard”

Figure 6 – Ladder-Climbing Mobility in MCP “Elastic Leotard”

Figure 7 – Webb’s MCP “Elastic Leotard” Being Tested in Lethal Vacuum

Dr. Webb’s design was never developed for use (although in my opinion,  it should have been).  NASA in recent years has funded Dr. Dava Newman at MIT to experiment with another MCP variant that she terms the “Bio-Suit”.  This is a compression garment that is simpler and easier to don than Dr. Webb’s design,  being based on fewer layers of substantially-more sophisticated,  directionally-tailored material combinations. 

Dr. Newman claims to have achieved compression levels near 0.25 atm,  and thinks 0.30 atm to be feasible.  Actually,  those levels she has achieved are pretty close to what Dr. Webb achieved,  so as vacuum protection,  the garments are really quite comparable.  Her design is clearly very supple and mobile,  as depicted in Figure 8.  And it is already fundamentally adequate as a compression garment.  

Figure 8 – Newman’s "Bio-Suit" MCP Garment at MIT

The fundamental equivalent-altitude compression requirements range from 14% atm at 10,000 feet equivalent to 21% atm at sea level equivalent.  Both the older Webb “Elastic Leotard” and the newer Newman “Bio-Suit” designs already exceed these compression requirements.  What has held this technology back the most seems to be a 33% atm compression requirement from NASA,  to match the pressures used in their current suits. 

This higher compression level seems to be driven more by safe but immediate decompression from near 1 atm air to much lower-pressure pure oxygen,  without risking the bends from the nitrogen dissolved in the blood.   However,  it might be worth incurring the necessary decompression time in order to obtain the other advantages of the MCP suit at currently-feasible compression values,  while still maintaining the safety of “real air” in the habitat (a fire safety issue). 

The On-Orbit Repair and Assembly Facility

Putting all of this together looks like the concept depicted in Figure 9.  There,  a restraint bed with a manipulator arm is located inside a spaceframe covered in reflective sheeting,  with lights on the inside.  One wall is the “door” through objects may be admitted to,  and withdrawn from,  the work enclosure.  There is a pressurized cabin with a window located at one side,  in which the operator of the manipulator arm may work in shirtsleeves. 

Adjacent to the arm operator cabin is an airlock chamber for astronauts,  that leads either inside the work bay,  or to outside the facility,  as needed.  There is also a habitat module adjacent to the arm operator’s compartment,  in which off-duty astronauts may sleep,  eat,  and recreate (this could be one of the Bigelow inflatables).  At its extreme end is a multiple docking adapter for any of a variety of crew transfer vehicles (such as the Russian Soyuz,  the Spacex Dragon,  the Boeing CST-100,  or the Sierra Nevada Dreamchaser). 

An adjacent service module contains an orbital maneuvering engine and its propellant supply,  makeup breathing oxygen,  and other life support supplies.  All are brought up with the crew,  and transferred from the taxi to this service module.   

Individually,  all of these modules could be launchable by existing rockets,  and assembled by docking and hookup,  exactly as the ISS was.  The spaceframe is an easily-erectable structure put together much like “Tinkertoys”.  The reflective sheeting could be attached by nothing more sophisticated than Velcro.  The lighting merely clamps to the frame tubes on the inside,  powered by extension cords that also tie to the frame tubes with Velcro. 

Figure 9 – The On-Orbit Repair and Assembly Facility

As it says in the figure,  astronauts inside the enclosed bay need no insulating garments,  once the lighting has brought the bay and its contents up to room temperatures.  The MCP suit used inside need be nothing more than just the “vacuum-protective underwear” that Dr. Webb tested long ago:  a basic compression garment and a breathing rig.  Inside the facility,  the self-contained oxygen backpack isn’t really needed,  since a “hookah rig” tapping facility supplies could be substituted,  thereby enhancing mobility and dexterity further. 

For astronauts venturing outside the facility,  more would be required,  but these need only be conventional insulating clothing,  almost exactly what we use here on Earth.  For example,  simply add a white insulating coverall (or pants and coat),  plus white insulating gloves,  and white insulated overshoes,  all worn over the very same compression garment. 

Add the same helmet,  and the standalone backpack,  plus a safety tether to the facility.  It might even be convenient to fit the helmet with a broad-brimmed hat to shade the head from the sun.  This is depicted in Figure 10.  Use hard hiking boots,  and the astronaut is ready to explore on Mars or the moon.

Figure 10 – MCP Suit as “Vacuum-Protective Underwear”,  with Outer Garments Added as Appropriate

Update 2-21-14:

The upshot of accidents and experiments since about 1960 is that exposure of a body part to vacuum results in tissue edema (swelling),  as the liquid in the blood diffuses through the blood vessel walls into the intercellular spaces.  But,  this requires time:  it is not immediate.  In fact,  on Capt. Kittinger’s first balloon flight for the high-altitude bailout tests,  one of his suit gloves failed to pressurize.  That hand was exposed to lethal vacuum for hours,  and swelled up,  was painful,  and was useless.  A couple of hours after landing,  the recompressed hand was normal and functional. 

Combine that with the piecemeal nature of an MCP suit and the room temperature of items inside the unpressurized work bay described here.  MCP suits are not one piece garments.  You can take pieces off,  such as gloves and booties,  without disturbing the compression achieved in the rest of the garment.  The experiments and Capt. Kittinger’s experience indicates it is 20 to 30 minutes before swelling begins,  after exposure of a hand to vacuum.

What that means is that for very fine work,  fine enough that even the thin compression gloves of an MCP suit interfere,  you can remove the gloves and work barehanded for a short period of time,  as long as nothing is cold enough or hot enough to cause thermal injury.  The work bay described ensures “room temperature workpieces”,  so thermal injury is not an issue inside this space,  once thermal equilibrium is achieved.  The astronaut might spend 10 to 20 minutes working safely barehanded in vacuum inside the facility,  before needing to recompress his hands with the gloves (or going inside the pressurized space).

That startling possibility is the direct consequence of what we know about physiological responses to vacuum exposure,  the radiation physics of enclosed lighted spaces,  and the modular nature of MCP space suit construction.  This combination of technologies,  plus that possibility of barehanded work in vacuum for really fine work,  is a revolution waiting-in-the-wings for astronaut dexterity.  


Putting together these technologies into an on-orbit repair and assembly facility is actually a very necessary prerequisite to many of the things we might wish to do in space. 

A facility like this makes major repair and maintenance of on-orbit satellites and vehicles very possible once again,  as it once was with the Space Shuttle:  things like Hubble and its descendants.  Yet,  launching the facility once,  and manning it intermittently at need with smaller vehicles,  is by far less expensive than Shuttle ever was. 

Being able to assemble large objects on-orbit from components makes possible vehicles and equipment too large to launch within current payload shroud dimensions.  That makes manned landers “large enough to do a proper job” feasible,  for future missions to Mars,  the moon,  or even Mercury.  Those design concepts are entirely over-constrained by shroud dimensions today,  among other things. 

There is nothing “far-future” or “blue-sky” about the technologies proposed here.  Only the combination is new.  Everything is already demonstrated to be fundamentally feasible today.  Only the “final debugging” of the spacesuit and spaceframe items still needs to be done,  and it is quite clear that those could happen very quickly,  and for not a heart-breaking expense. 

The MCP suit in particular,  “done right” as a mix-and-match suite of conventional outer clothing worn over a basic set of vacuum-protective underwear,  is exactly what our astronauts need in order to do much more effectively their exploration,  or just about any activity imaginable. 

For maximum crew self-repair and self-rescue capability on a long mission (like going to Mars),  it might be wise to include a version of this facility as a part of their ship.  It could come in very handy making critical repairs.  

Update 3-29-2014:  About Spacesuits and Their History

The need for life support in the thin air became apparent with the early manned balloon flights to higher altitudes long ago.  It became a necessity in the 1930’s,  when aircraft became capable of flying in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere. 

The first attempts at high altitude suits were variations on the deep sea diver’s hard hat dress.  The basic diver’s dress was a balloon full of air around the diver’s body.  Adapted for high altitude,  it held a net pressure over ambient,  like any well-inflated balloon or tire.  This “gas balloon” approach has been termed the “full pressure suit”.

These early full pressure suits looked like the illustrations in Figure 1.  On the left is the pressure suit worn by Wiley Post.  On the right is Swain’s suit,  which protected its wearer to about 50,000 feet.  These suits became very inflexible upon inflation,  just like a tire,  thus severely restricting movements of any type.  Vision was often severely restricted by the helmet designs.  These suits were very hot,  sweaty,  and uncomfortable,  even when just seated and non-moving.  

 Figure 1 – Early (1930’s) Full Pressure Suits Adapted From Hard-Hat Diver’s Dress (Post, L; Swain, R)

After World War 2,  high altitude life support once again became an issue,  this time in military jet aviation.  The suit used most often was the so-called “partial pressure” suit,  depicted in Figure 2 on the left.  This was not an impermeable inflated gas balloon;  instead,  inflated tubes called “capstans” pulled the fabric tight about the body,  thus exerting mechanical pressure upon the skin,  instead of air pressure.  The most appropriate name of this approach is “mechanical counter pressure”,  because the pressure exerted by the suit mechanically upon the skin counters the breathing gas pressure in the lungs,  preventing edema and blood pooling. 

This partial pressure suit,  as it was then fielded,  left the wearer’s hands and feet uncompressed entirely,  and in fact achieved low and very uneven compression on the limbs.  But there was enough torso compression to balance the breathing gas pressure,  and this sufficed for about 10 minutes to bail out from very high altitudes,  even 70,000 feet.  After 10 minutes,  blood pooling in the limbs would cause fainting.  Several minutes after that,  uncompressed hands and feet would begin swelling from tissue edema,  unless death intervened to zero the blood pressure.  
 Figure 2 – The Partial Pressure Suit (L) vs. an Early Bellows-Jointed Full Pressure Suit (R)

In the same figure,  on the right,  is an illustration of an early full pressure suit (gas balloon),  with bellows jointing on the limbs to ease the movement restrictions somewhat.  This suit was still restrictive of movement,  and still very hot to wear.  However,  it is the direct ancestor of the full pressure suits worn by high-altitude spy plane pilots,  and by the astronauts ever since the beginnings of manned space flight.

The partial pressure suit was updated from capstan-tensioning to elastic tightness with the “space activity suit” of the 1960’s and early 1970’s,  by Dr. Paul Webb.  That suit is depicted in the main article just above.  Those efforts were effectively ignored for over 3 decades,  in spite of their promise. 

In recent years,  the same mechanical counter pressure idea has been revived at MIT by Dr. Dava Newman,  using fewer layers of more sophisticated fabrics,  as her “bio-suit”.  That is also depicted in the main article above,  but so far,  has not led to a serious major spacesuit development effort.

Meanwhile,  the astronauts’ full pressure suit had to improve to handle the mobility and cooling requirements associated with doing activities outside the spacecraft.   Spacesuits became a sort-of one-piece “everything” garment,  with an inner gas balloon layer,  and multiple protective layers outside of that,  all in the one garment.  They have to protect against heat,  cold,  and vacuum. 

The astronaut has to wear water-cooled underwear,  with an appropriate back pack that contains his portable “air conditioner” as well as his breathing gas supply.  The limb joints have been greatly improved from simple bellows jointing,  but still offer considerable resistance.  The gloves are the worst part:  stiff and inflexible under pressure,  they prevent handling small tools or parts effectively.  They do tend to rip your fingernails off when you flex your fist.

The full pressure suit illustrated in Figure 3 is that worn on the Space Shuttle for extravehicular activities.  Its backpack includes a maneuvering jetpack system.  This suit rig weighs over 300 pounds,  a similar one used on the moon without the jet pack was over 200 pounds.    In effect,  the astronaut is encased in his own little one-man spaceship.  And he is encased tightly enough to prevent him doing any fine work while outside.  One leak anywhere,  and sudden decompression leads to death.

Some of the most recent thinking carries this “one-man spaceship” idea to further extremes.  Recent news stories have reported a new spacesuit idea seriously proposed for Mars.  This is depicted in Figure 4.  Note that it is essentially a hard shell over the head and torso combined,  with only the limbs exposed for movement.  A fall is a very serious risk in a suit this ungainly:  how would the astronaut ever get back up,  if there were no one nearby to help?  (Especially if the support pack were a backpack,  not a hand-held suitcase.)
 Figure 3 – The Modern Full Pressure Suit for Shuttle Astronauts
Figure 4 – One Proposed Mars Suit,  ca. 2014

Compare that with the concept proposed in the main article above:  a minimal mechanical counter pressure rig as “vacuum-protective underwear”,  more or less like the multi-piece garment proposed by Dr. Webb,  but done with the modern materials used by Dr. Newman.  Over this,  one wears unpressurized conventional insulating or padding garments,  of the same kinds we use here on Earth,  as the outerwear appropriate to the task at hand. 

The compression gloves are relatively thin,  and far more supple than any glove ever seen with a full pressure suit,  mainly because they are not inflated:  there is no stiffening effect by internal gas pressure,  because there is no internal gas pressure.  These gloves can even be doffed for a few minutes’ barehanded work,  if need be.  Removing them does not decompress the suit,  the garment contains no gas pressure at all,  except in the helmet.

A tear in this mechanical counter pressure suit does not mean loss of breathing gas or a lethal decompression.  The wearer simply sews up the tear next time he is inside.   A big rip might be patched with something like duct tape until the wearer can get back inside.

There is no cooling system,  no water-cooled underwear (and no risk of drowning the astronaut with a water leak into his helmet).  The wearer simply sweats right through the porous compression garment into the vacuum,  inside his outerwear.  This is simple natural body perspiration cooling,  just like here at home.  In fact,  in vacuum,  it’s even more efficient at cooling the body than it is here. 

The back pack need only contain breathing gas for surface work,  or breathing gas plus a jet pack rig for work in zero gravity.  With no cooling system,  Dr. Webb’s entire 1970 rig (garment,  helmet,  oxygen backpack,  no jetpack,  no outerwear) was 85 pounds.  The wearer was quite capable of crawling into and out of tight spots,  doing calisthenics,  and climbing ladders. 

We already need a really lightweight,  and very non-restrictive,  space suit right here in Earth orbit.  We need those same qualities for visiting the moon,  Mars,  asteroids,  or anywhere else.  Mechanical counter pressure done as vacuum-protective underwear,  with mix-and-match outerwear as needed,  offers all of that,  plus no risks of decompression from tears or punctures. 

I have to ask a very serious question:  why is this not a major spacesuit development effort?  It so very clearly should have been one,  starting decades ago.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

You Gotta See This!

My wife found this image.  It's so entertaining that I have to figure out something to use it for.  A business card,  perhaps?  Please comment.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Rethinking High-Speed Rail to Make It Work

So,  yet another group is looking at a high-speed rail system,  this time for Texas and Oklahoma as a region.  I like the basic idea,  but I do not like any of the proposals I have seen,  not since passenger train service mostly went away decades ago.

Nearly all of these proposals involve train speeds of 150 to 250 mph,  which in turn requires all-new equipment,  and also requires all-new right-of-way with high-tech track.  So,  nearly all of these proposals run in the very unaffordable 10’s of billions of today’s dollars. 

And here’s the real “rub”:  none of these proposals has ever effectively addressed how to get people out of their cars and onto the train for intercity travel!  Just shooting from the hip,  I can tell you that a ticket price 80% that of the equivalent airline ticket will not do that trick. 

The real rail system (that we actually do need!) should maximize use of existing assets to reduce cost,  and effectively address the “draw” that will get folks out of their cars on the interstates.  As it turns out,  there are pre-existing concepts for both of these very serious issues,  I just have never seen them proposed. 

Existing Assets

The allure of using existing assets is quite obvious:  to avoid spending 10’s of billions of dollars for this.  What we already have today is 80 mph capable,  for that is the typical cruise speed of an Amtrak train between stops in Texas. 

Improve track maintenance but slightly,  and you could raise that to 100 mph capable,  just as it was decades ago for steam express trains.  There’s just not a lot of expense involved to upgrade or adapt existing equipment for 100+ mph speeds,  not compared to the 10’s of billions of dollars for “all new everything”. 

The “Draw” Out of the Cars

The fundamental problem has been to get people out of their cars on the interstates,  because personal auto travel is just so bloody convenient.  Why?  Because the car expense doesn’t change when you get to destination (no rental required). 

If you have to rent a car at destination,  then there is no effective difference between train travel and air travel.   Air travel with car rental is such a royal pain in the rear that people simply prefer to drive hundreds of miles to avoid the hassle. 

In the process,  we waste millions of barrels of oil,  because mass transit is just far more efficient than cars.  People trying to address this with their mass transit plans always forget that the hassle factor has a high price to the passenger,  just like the oil. 

So,  why not do a sort of mixed freight and passenger train,  where a part of the freight is the cars of the passengers?  It’s a drive on,  get out and spend the trip in the dining car,  and then drive off without rental hassle when you get there.  This sort of thing has already been shown to work on the East Coast and in Europe!

Doing It A Bit Differently

So,  my proposal would be threefold:  (1) upgrade track maintenance to support 100 mph travel,  (2) upgrade or adapt engines and rolling stock for 100 mph travel,  and (3) put together trains that are mixed freight and passenger as well as the all-freight trains we already have. 

Just run everything nearer 100 mph than the current 70 mph freight,  to relieve scheduling problems.  The passenger-carrying portion could be added to any mixed freight.  Just add the dining car and some flat cars with the autos chained down on them.  Simple as that. 

Suggestions for Operations

I suggest that the auto-bearing flat cars be sorted by city,  according to the stops the train will make.  When you stop,  you uncouple that city’s auto-carrying flat car for arriving passengers,  and couple-up the auto-carrying flat car for those passengers getting on. 

That way,  auto load/unload times need not impact the time of the station stop.  You can just keep the same dining car,  with passengers coming and going as the stops are made.  Do the auto load/unload operations on a siding,  before/after the train stop.  

Why This Will Work

Trains are so much more efficient than any imaginable road vehicle that we would still save lots of fuel,  even hauling passengers’ autos on the train.  The passenger has a car at destination without a rental hassle.  And travel times at 100 mph are still shorter than anything achievable on the interstates,  even with a 75 mph speed limit. 

Folks that’s a win-win situation for everybody.  All it takes to “solve” this is reusing existing assets in a slightly-different way that addresses attractiveness of mass transit

Longer term,  we can look at what it would take to use those same existing assets at 120 mph.  Maybe even 130 mph.  But,  the 200 mph that requires “all-new everything” is just not necessary. 

Addressing Track Issues

I rode the Amtrak from McGregor to Chicago a few years ago.  I timed the speed at near-80 mph between stops in Texas,  and near-90 mph in Illinois.  But in Arkansas and Missouri,  we had to crawl at no more than 20-30 mph,  because the track was in such poor shape.

This state-by-state variation in track maintenance is what could be fixed by a federal standard for all lines to be used for high-speed passenger service.  As for correcting the problems,  there’s a shovel-ready infrastructure project,  if ever there was one. 

What I Saw in Japan

Last year my family went to Japan to visit friends and relatives.  The whole time we were there,  we used narrow-gauge light rail for almost all shorter trips,  and full-gauge rail for longer-range intercity travel.  It was really convenient.

All of these traveled faster than the corresponding auto traffic on the freeway system,  so people used them preferentially.  The same would be true here,  which is why 100+mph is “good enough”.