Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Better Access to Earth Orbit?

The huge costs associated with the long-serving "semi-reusable" Shuttle are prohibitive for commercial interests operating in space. So also are the huge costs associated with existing or planned expendable launchers. It does not look to me like the new Constellation design will be either timely or a cost improvement.

The idea of a reusable space plane of some sort was supposed to reduce these costs, but never actually did in the Shuttle's case. Too much of that vehicle is not reused, there is way too much rework between flights, and the complexity of the system demands a supporting logistical tail the size of a major American city. That can never be inexpensive.

The X-30 "Orient Express" project during Reagan's administration was supposed to fix this by using high-efficiency airbreathing propulsion in a single-stage spaceplane. It failed primarily because the necessary propulsion technology, supersonic-combustion ramjet (scramjet), did not exist in a technologically-ready form. Even today, it is still very experimental. A secondary reason is that the design trajectory was essentially re-entry flown in reverse at very high drag. This eats up a lot of the benefit of the higher-efficiency airbreathing propulsion.

The X-33 project of the 1990's was supposed to address launch costs in a reusable, chemical-fueled rocket, single stage vehicle. The cost reduction was to come from reusability. The only way to accomplish such a thing is to drastically cut the weight of the structure, and the payload weight. That's just the plain facts of physics with the rocket equation. Structures that light (under 8% structural fraction) are inherently very fragile, while the spaceflight environment is very punishing. As it turned out, every time they set an X-30 fuel tank on-end for a component test, its own weight crushed it. The entire vehicle had to be built the very same lightweight way. So the project died.

The old lifting-body work of the 1960's was a part of what went into the Shuttle. Another part was the idea of carrier-airplane launch. The original Shuttle design was a two-stage airplane, with a gigantic carrier craft reaching low hypersonic speeds in the lower stratosphere. There it was to release a rocket spaceplane orbiter. Obviously, with government budget-shortfalls and all that political-football nonsense, this plan did not happen. Yet, as the original ASAT missile launched from an F-15 fighter proved, such a thing is possible.

Most folks do not remember (or ever knew) that we actually tested nuclear-thermal rocket engines in the Nevada desert from about 1959 to 1972. These offered vastly-improved efficiency performance over chemical rockets, but with two important problems. One, the engine thrust/weight ratio was too heavy for use as a lower stage or for direct surface launch. The other was the severe radiation hazard of the exhaust stream, and also of the post-fired hardware. That stuff they tested long ago in Nevada is still out there "glowing blue" at night. That second radiation-hazard problem is probably the most insurmountable.

The nuclear rocket work, promising as it was, died when President Nixon killed all manned spaceflight beyond Earth orbit in 1972, right in the middle of the Apollo landings on the moon. It was supposed to be the prime propulsion for the planned Mars landings of the 1980's. When it lost the rest of Apollo and the Mars landing, NASA killed its nuclear rocket program as "no longer needed". In hindsight, I think everyone might agree with me that Nixon and NASA made very bad decisions.

All of this got me to wondering if there really is a way to have less expensive access to Earth orbit, and if so, which approaches might "work best". There seem to be three basic ideas to pursue: staged rocket, nuclear upper stage, and staged airplane. Any of these will need something new added to the mix, or we are right back where we started before. And yet, this "new" item had better be an existing technology. Otherwise, it will be stuck "forever" in development, just like the scramjet-powered X-30.

One of the most important things I learned in development engineering work was to question all assumptions. Another was that you cannot do something new if you do not change something, somewhere, somehow. After all, repeating the same actions endlessly, and expecting the outcome to change, is a very good definition of insanity. So, I looked closely at a few of the launchers we have operating today: Atlas-5, Titan-4 and Delta. Each is an update of an old 1950's missile design, with upper stages, or strap-on boosters, or both. Atlas and Titan were our first liquid-propellant ICBM's. Delta's core is the old Thor IRBM. All of these are mid-50's in origin.

You must remember what it was like in the 1950's to be designing rockets that might reach orbit. The only technologies ready-to-use were chemical rockets that could barely do the job, provided that structures were one-shot, throwaway light, and that multiple stages were used. (Ramjet assist could theoretically have helped, except that the ramjet hardware was dead weight until the vehicle reached a feasible ramjet speed.) Even with all the improvements made since then, that basic design approach is still constrained by those facts. All modern launchers are fundamentally based on that same idea.

Airbreathing technologies are inherently far more fuel efficient. But, in the 1950's, ramjet was barely considered ready-to-field with stage-off boosters (SA-4, Talos, and Bomarc), and 1950's turbine simply was not adequate for the job. Lots of things have changed since then: ramjets have been updated with integral boosters (SA-6, ALVRJ, ASALM-PTV, and SS-N-22 "Sunburn"). Turbines have been improved, with air bypass to the afterburner, to cover speeds up to about Mach 3.5 at relatively high thrust (the J-58's that pushed the SR-71 "Black Bird").

Yet none of that was ever fed back into any of the launcher designs. Lots of studies, sure, but no hardware programs. I think this was largely because of the same budget-shortfall and political-football nonsense that screwed up the original Shuttle design. That ought to be a criminal offense. Are you listening, Congress? You did it: you ruined NASA with that crap!

Looking at the basic fast-ascent stage rocket, the lightweight throwaway structures seem doomed to one-shot use, precisely because rocket efficiency does not allow the higher weight allowance necessary to provide protective systems and robust structures capable of absorbing the inevitable punishment of repeated flights into space. That begs a very interesting question: could adding some higher airbreathing efficiency afford us the weight allowance neccessary for effective recovery and re-use?

Another good question to ask comes to mind when examining the complexity and logistical tail behind the Shuttle, and to only a slightly lesser extent, the expendable launchers. If we could vastly-simplify these designs, could that reduce the size of the logistical tail to something substantially less expensive?

If those two questions have positive answers, and I think they do, could we put those answers together into one design and achieve a breakthrough in spaceflight launch costs? I think that might indeed be possible, but no one has ever tried it with hardware!

I organized my activities around 3 basic ideas: the staged fast ascent rocket, a nuclear upper stage used in such a way that its exhaust stream never hits the atmosphere, and a staged airplane.

For the fast-ascent staged-rocket idea, I added simple integral-booster ramjets (not scramjets!) to the lower rocket stages in parallel-burn format. I also added simplified ablative-protected pressure fed engines, letting the tankage provide a strong airframe as well as containing high pressures.

This turned out to be so promising that I reworked the same basic ramjet-assisted launcher into a single stage form for a lob-up trajectory for the nuclear upper stage. This is a non-optimal trajectory from an energy standpoint, but the nuclear upper stage has the "ooph" to handle it at a large payload fraction anyway.

For the staged airplane, I reworked the "air turbo-ramjet" design of the J-58's in the SR-71, into a 100% air bypass configuration for ramjet-only operation beyond Mach 3 all the way up to about Mach 5 or 6, at about 100,000 feet altitude. With this more-energetic carrier airplane technologically feasible, I settled on a 2-stage rocket "payload" for the hypersonic airplane to carry.

None of these studies are "complete" in the sense that they give "the" final answer, but they do provide some very interesting guidance.

For example, in the assisted stage rocket study, I rough-sized a 3-stage vehicle roughly 200 feet tall and a million pounds, capable of throwing 12,000 lb to a 1000-mile circular orbit, with structural weight fractions near 40% in all stages. The second stage had wings for flyback, with integral-booster ramjet nacelles on them.

During the first stage rocket burn, I fired the ramjet integral boosters at launch, then transitioned to ramburning around Mach 1. Staging 1-to-2 occurred at about Mach 2, with ramburning continuing in parallel with the second stage core rocket, to burnout at Mach 6, 80,000 feet. All of this was essentially vertical flight averaging 6.5 gees. The third stage was an all-rocket unit, since most of its burn occurred outside the sensible, usable atmosphere. With no moving engine parts to be damaged, I assumed ditching in the ocean near the launch site for second stage recovery.

In this study, I assumed simple pressure-fed kerosene-LOX engines with missile-type ablative liners in the first and second stages. The same engine using LH2-LOX was required of the third stage to keep up a high payload. I think that if I were to do it again, I would shut down the second-stage ramjets at about Mach 6, 100,000 feet, but continue to burn the core second stage rocket to about 10,000 feet/second, so that I could revert to a common kerosene rocket engine in all three stages.

The first and third stages used rear-mounted parachute deceleration into a front-first ocean splashdown for recovery. Unlike the Shuttle SRB's, these closed-tank units have inherent floatation, and being a pressure-fed system, these tanks are strong enough to be reliable for this kind of recovery. The third stage had a heat shield and featured N2O4-UDMH maneuvering engines in addition to the main engine. The storables were for circularizing and for de-orbit, and would be bladder-expulsion technology. The main engines in all the stages would be fed from simple free-surface tank technology.

In the second study, for the "lob-up nuke", I was able to hit the same Mach 6 / 80,000 feet point with a single-stage ramjet-assisted rocket, flying vertically upward at about 6.5 gees average, and carrying a single nuclear upper stage. This vehicle was around 1/3-million pounds at liftoff, and delivered the same 12,000 lb to 1000-mile circular, with 40% structural fractions in the lower stage, and 10% in the nuke. The lower stage was the same basic winged flyback design with ramjet nacelles on the wings as the second stage in the first study. As a single ramjet-assisted stage, this design was successful enough on paper that I would try that approach in the all-chemical stage-rocket mission, if I were to do it again.

From lower stage burnout, the lower stage uses its wings to bend the trajectory over for flyback, while the nuke just coasts straight up to an inertial apogee about 100 miles up. It fires horizontally for the full 26,000 feet per second orbital delta-vee at that point. This has the advantage that the radioactive exhaust stream never enters the Earth's atmosphere, a real safety item for using nukes to launch things. The nuke stage never returns to Earth, either, although it could be refueled and re-used on-orbit.

The staged-airplane study was different. It did not take long to realize that the airplane's "payload" should be a plain rocket, since most of its effort would be outside the sensible, usable atmosphere. I used pressure-fed LH2-LOX engines similar to those in the other studies, plus an N2O4-UDMH maneuvering system on the third stage for circularization and de-orbit. Both rocket stages featured the same 40% structural fractions and parachute-retarded ocean recovery as the first study. Recovery of the second stage would be very problematic, as it would splashdown essentially halfway around the world.

I had originally hoped to transition from air turboramjet power to rocket power in the carrier plane, so as to reach Mach 10 around 150,000 feet in a 45-degree sudden pull-up maneuver for payload release. There just was not enough room in a practical aircraft to do that. I looked at several supersonic bombers for guidance as to structural fractions. These included the RA-5C, the B-58, the XB-70, the B-1, and the SR-71. Excluding the Navy carrier bird, combat-capable mass fractions appeared to be 50-55%. A launch aircraft does not have to be combat-capable, so I used 40%. To hold a decent payload fraction, I had to "give up" at Mach 5, 100,000 feet, with the 100%-bypass air turboramets in ramjet mode from Mach 2.5 to Mach 5.

Even so, I could only insert 8000 lb into the same 1000-mile circular orbit as the other two studies. The airplane that "did this" looked like a gigantic, 4-engine SR-71, and grossed near 1.6 million pounds at liftoff. This was a horizontal takeoff design.

The same thing as a vertical takeoff design looked pointless to me, for that is right back to the stage rocket scenario. However, I did learn two important things from this study: (1) practical designs with reasonable-size aircraft will handle only small payloads (like the old ASAT), and (2) subsonic-combustion ramjet will still produce usable thrust at 100,000 feet M5-6 conditions, not just the 80,000 feet I had used in the other two studies.

Since I ran these studies, I have run across a Russian folding-wing flyback booster proposal that has appeared at airshows in mockup form, named "Baikal". That idea combined with my integral-booster ramjet nacelle could allow a path for easier land recovery of stages as separate smaller subassemblies, especially at long ranges. If I had it all to do over, I'd try that idea against the basic winged all-in-one stage that I looked at.

A key thing to glean is this: while basic subsonic-combustion ramjets were ready in the 50's, integral boosters were not, which turns out to be major reason why ramjet assist was not tried back then. It is the integral booster that makes sure the added weight of the ramjet engine is doing useful work, right from launch ignition. Without that integral booster, my results would never have looked this favorable.

Seeing as how integral booster technlogy has been in operational flying ramjet weapons (the SA-6) since 1967, I think it is high time we tried the ramjet assist idea. In fact, trying it is 4 decades overdue.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Red Letter Day: Ethanol VW Experiment Complete

The Ethanol VW rolled up 250,000 original miles on Monday 12-14-09. It is officially retired now from daily commuter service. There are a couple of small experiments left to do before the license tags run out, and I re-mothball it.

For the last 3 years and 30,000 miles, this vehicle has run stronger, cleaner, and smoother on E-85 ethanol fuel than at anytime in all its life. And this is a 1973 build of a 1933 technology. Most of its engine and driveline components were near or beyond expected life when I began the experiment.

During the experiment, I did add Lucas Oil Stabilizer to its crankcase oil to stave off deteriorating compression due to the extreme age of the rings. It worked, and stopped all fuel smells in the oil, too. Between that and the far-cleaner burning ethanol, compression has remained stable, the valve lash settings have been stable, and the oil requires thousands, not dozens, of miles before it darkens. Oil lasts at least twice as long as it used to.

Even decades of soot deposits have disappeared from its little tailpipes! Plus, traceable data show a factor 1.2 increase in overall energy conversion efficiency, partially offsetting the energy shortfall per gallon in the fuel. It gets 80-83% of its former gasoline mileage, not 70%.

That's also a factor 1.2 decrease in the air used to make the same road load power. Less air polluted is less total emissions laid down in each mile traveled. And the EPA worries whether ethanol increases emissions in cars not originally meant to use it! Bah! What idiots!

If there were a solvent attack or corrosion problem with ethanol fuel in this car, I would have found it by now. I have not seen one problem, not anywhere. Fuel tank, gage sender, lines, fuel pump, filter, and all the parts of the carburetor are just fine. In fact, they are cleaner than I have ever seen before.

I still hear other "authorities" warning of the dangers of ethanol. What rubbish! I can recommend it for any 4-stroke engine suitably modified to use it, or in any unmodified 4-stroke engine up to 35% ethanol in the blend. (That's from the "Ethanol F-150" experiment, still ongoing, after 2 years, with blends from E-17 to E-47 strength).

All my 4-stroke lawn and garden equipment has run flawlessly, completely unmodified, on E-34 blend for more than 2 years. That's 2 gallons E-85 and 3 gallons ethanol-free unleaded regular in a 5 gallon can. What could be simpler?

I think I will try a "flex fuel" carburetor in the VW before I re-mothball it: an adjusting screw on the main jet, just like the "Ethanol Farmall" (3 years on E-85 so far). Somewhere about E-45 is where the unmodified ethanol-blend F-150 exhibited late timing symptoms. I have to wonder whether timing advance is blend-dependent or acts like an on-off switch. Maybe the VW can help me find out.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Public insurance is socialistic medicine? I think not.


An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists.

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

I find a dictionary definition of socialism to be very useful in public discourse. Way too many people are using that word to smear-paint other people's ideas, and almost none seem to know what it means, really.

A prime current example is the branding of a public insurance option as "socialism". It is not.

One needs to remember the outcome of the world's biggest experiment in socialism-as-the-only-economics plus ideology-gone-overboard: Soviet Russia. Complete and utter failure, greatly compounded by its hidebound rigid dictatorship.

The arguments that a government program competing with private entities will drive the private entities out of business presume two things. (1) the government program will efficient enough to outcompete by providing better value at lower "cost" (because of "invisible" taxes), and (2) that there is no legal bar prohibiting private enterprise.

The Russian experiment failed precisely because assumption (1) is untrue in actual practice. Large bureaucracies are never efficient, not even corporate ones. Our largest organizations present the illusion of efficiency, not the fact. See today's NASA. See also Boeing after absorbing McDonnell-Douglas, et al. I rather doubt the 787 will be a success, and that failure will put Boeing out of business (eventually).

For that same reason, I think our free market economic system might work a lot better if one of the "fair play" rules imposed upon it, acted to prevent unlimited growth. "Too big to let fail" is just too damned big. Too big is too economically dangerous to the rest of us, and when they misbehave, requires "bailouts" that just don't need to happen.

Regarding assumption (2), prohibiting private enterprise by dictatorship fiat is the only reason Russian socialism lasted as long as it did.

For the same two reasons, Red China is quietly going capitalist (although they haven't shed their ideology yet). Eastern Europe already shed their ideologies and went capitalist. About the only country that didn't was Cuba, and yet they were never exactly Soviet-style. (Once rigid-ideologue Fidel is dead, I think you will see Cuba belatedly transform.)

The main take-home lessons from the history of economic activities in all the western civilizations are twofold. (1) that market economies really do work best, but also (2) that "free market" is not synonymous with the "market-free-of-rules" espoused by some in American politics for about 30 years.

Further, Europe, Japan, and Australia provide good examples that democratic societies can operate just fine with a blend of capitalism and government-run entities. In particular, France and Germany have been quite successful. There is nothing wrong with this, it works, and they are still free.

I would point out that, excepting Japan, people in these countries generally enjoy more paid holidays, better retirements, better working conditions, and in some cases, longer and healthier and happier lives than we do here. All one need do is actually talk to them to find out, one-on-one. I did that during my trip to Spain for the international technical meeting last April. It was a real eye-opener.

I think we here in the US may be too tightly constrained by unjustified ideological beliefs mandated by some late-19th and 20th century traditions. These ideologies were not mandated by the 18th century Constitution our forbears wrote for us.

To truly succeed, one simply does what actually works.

Screw the ideologies.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Future of NASA Manned Space

The Augustine commission has published its report, which I read. I largely agree with what they offered. Where I disagree is minor: it is less important to decide whether to scrap the government's return-to-the-moon “Constellation” program or not, and much more important to address fundamental structural problems with a government agency overseeing way too many sacred-cow programs.

"Constellation" includes a new and more capable space capsule named "Orion", a new lunar lander named "Altair", and a family of rockets to launch them named "Ares". In point of fact, I’d recommend keeping the Ares rockets and the Orion capsule on track as currently planned. But, I’d make that the last conventional rocket launcher program to be developed and operated by NASA itself. We will need some Saturn-class launchers no matter what we decide to do, and the Ares-1 and Ares-5 (plus Spacex’s Falcon-9 equivalent to Ares-1) are “it”. Further, I’d mandate that NASA turn these Ares rockets over to private launch operators soonest. I'd also mandate using Falcon-9 for space station access at the earliest possible date.

The commission is right about this (and my reading of western history agrees): the government’s proper role is exploration, new technology developments, and encouraging industry to go exploit things found by government exploration. NASA really should be focusing on some extremely powerful propulsion technologies to make really high-speed interplanetary travel practical, and on some sort of “outside-the-normal-box” launch system to make Earth orbit access really cheap.

For the high-speed stuff, I’d suggest gas-core (not solid core) nuclear thermal rockets, and the nuclear explosion propulsion drive, as items definitely “do-able” in the near-term. Most current government and industry employees have forgotten the very real experimental efforts made in the 1950’s and 1960’s in precisely those areas.

The solid core technology was actually test-fired under Project Rover many times in Nevada, between about 1959 and 1972. Toward the end of that effort, it achieved 700-1000 sec Isp levels at engine-only thrust/weight ratios near 3 to 10. The gas core experiments never quite got to actual engine test, but both gas-phase reactor criticality and adequate uranium fireball confinement were test-demonstrated by 1969.

Gas core engine design projections (with only regenerative cooling of the engine) were 2000-2500 sec Isp at engine-only thrust/weight far over 30. With a massive heat radiator added to protect the engine at high reaction power, the technogy seemed to be easily capable of 6000-10,000 sec Isp at engine thrust/weight near 0.1 (due to the inclusion of the radiator weight).

The nuclear explosion drive was extensively analyzed under old Project Orion in the 1959-1965 time period, but was never tested with nuclear materials. However, a 1-meter scale model flew just fine using pulsed high-explosive charges to simulate the effect. The best-performing designs on paper were very large vehicles weighing around 10,000 tons, and the truly peculiar advantage of this approach is the larger the vehicle the better. For 10,000-ton sizes, effective-Isp was far in excess of 10,000 sec, and it was challenging to hold vehicle accelerations down to 2 gees.

For the cheap launch stuff, I’d look at parallel-burn rocket-ramjet stuff, using the low-volume ramjet, integral-booster, technologies we developed for missiles in the 1970’s (see LTV's ALVRJ, and Martin-Marietta's ASALM-PTV, both of which flew quite successfully). Most of NASA today, and most current industry employees, never knew we did these things so long ago. I would keep the basic low drag-loss fast-ascent trajectory profile, and provide "ramjet assist" to a basic rocket core, only up to about Mach 6 at around 120,000 feet. This is plain kerosene-air subsonic-combustion ramjet stuff, which we have had operational since the late 1940's. Thus, there is no need for "scramjet technology", which is still not ready for application.

Whatever we do, we cannot scrap the space station early. We need it for research on deep space travel, but we will need to add a medical centrifuge to it to test for how much artificial gravity is “enough”, since that answer sets the size and cost of manned deep space exploration vehicle designs. That question now has no answer, because we only have the possibility of experimenting at 1-gee (down here) and 0-gee (up there), as things stand now. We already know 0-gee does irreparable bone damage after about 400 days’ exposure, based on the Russian experiences. This is critical to going anywhere outside Earth orbit, anytime soon.

The commission is also correct in pointing out that the real destination is Mars, but not necessarily the best first destination. Neither is the moon, in my opinion, except in so far as we can safely develop there the nuclear deep-space engines we need. Unfortunately, we are not yet ready to go to Mars, due to crew survival concerns. The twin bugaboos are lengthy 0-gee exposure (3-5 year round trip missions with bigger chemical rockets than we have ever had), and exposure to lethal solar radiation storms. Very powerful propulsion cuts down the exposure time to both hazards, and allows us to fly with at least some heavy radiation shielding.

Other worthy destinations include the asteroids and comets (aimed at figuring out how best to deflect killer impactors), and the moons of Mars (as a prelude to landings there). The commission did not mention destinations further out, but the moons of Jupiter and Saturn would be very interesting places to visit. The baseline design mission for the original old Project Orion nuclear explosion-driven ship back in 1959 was a 3-year round-trip voyage to Saturn in a 4000-ton spacious vehicle built like a steamship. That propulsion technology appears even today capable of supporting a trip like that as a single stage, fully re-usable vehicle!

The commission was right. We need to thoroughly re-think the purposes and goals of our government manned space program. We are fully capable of leaving the cradle and wading out into the ocean of deep space to explore as we have never done before. Why we have not already done so is both a great mystery, and a terrible disappointment, to me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pyrex glassware problem

A friend forwarded an email item blaming the Chinese for a recent baking dish shattering problem with Pyrex glassware. I looked into it, and found that there really is a problem, but that it was American in origin!

Pyrex was originally a trademark of Corning glassworks for a borosilicate glass very resistant to thermal shock. That word Pyrex became a synonym for borosilicate glass throughout the English-speaking world. Bakeware made of borosilicate glass really is quite resistant to shattering when moved in and out of cooking ovens, although it is not "invulnerable".

In 1998, Corning sold off its kitchenware operation. After a chain of ownerships, that operation has become World Kitchen, headquartered in Rosemont, Illinois. It has offices and manufacturing operations pretty much around the world. World Kitchen still uses the Pyrex brand name for its glass baking ware, as well as for laboratory glassware.

What I found is that laboratory glassware worldwide with the Pyrex name is still made of borosilicate glass, and is as safe as ever. Bakeware sold in Europe under the Pyrex name is still made (in France) of borosilicate glass, and so is also the same tough product that it always was. I did not find out anything about these products in Asia or Australia.

But, in the US, Pyrex glassware is now made of tempered soda-lime glass at a plant in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Ordinary soda-lime glass is what windows, jars, and beer bottles are made of, and are extremely susceptible to thermal shock shattering, as people have known for centuries. The new US soda-lime Pyrex is "tempered", however.

Soda-lime glass can be "tempered" by either a thermal or a chemical process, which makes it stronger, but not all that much more resistant to thermal shock. Two layers of tempered soda-lime glass sandwiching a plastic film is auto window safety glass.

The instructions now provided with US soda-lime Pyrex cookware do caution the user to be more careful about fast temperature changes, but who actually reads such instructions? Point is, the American people are used to the more resistant borosilicate glass. The soda-lime variety is simply going to break more often in the kind of kitchen duty traditional from prior decades.

Why did they do this? Simply, to make more money, and because they could. Soda-lime glass is cheaper than borosilicate glass.

This is a classic case of plain-old bottom-dollar thinking without regard to any ethical or legal restraints. They covered their legal butts with the revised instructions that nobody reads.

There is nothing in the American marketplace about the tradename Pyrex to prevent them from substituting the more susceptible soda-lime glass and selling it for a borosilicate price, under a tradename that people think still stands for shock-resistant. A deception!

And that is precisely what they did here (although not in Europe, not yet, anyway).

Americans screwing other Americans for profit. Ain't deregulation and laissez-faire wonderful?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Health Care Debate and Extremist Propaganda

Kudos to Carlos Sanchez for his column “Where Are Our Manners?” in the Sunday, 9-20-09 Waco (Texas) “Trib”. I, too, am tired of all the rude and disruptive behavior.

There is no excuse for Rep. Joe Wilson’s insulting outburst during the President’s address. It’s one thing to get acrimonious during Congressional debates, it’s quite another to disrespect the very institutions that bind us together.

Even Congressional debate has its limits: we do not need the likes of South Korea’s fistfights in the halls of our Congress. I am so tired of partisan politics trumping the good of our people, that I recommend we all “vote all the bastards out”.

I had the opportunity to visit with some good friends from Australia, and part of our conversation dealt with the US health care reform debate. It seems the Australians solved the same problem to the satisfaction of their people, and their doctors, about 1975.

Maybe we ought to look seriously at what they did. The same cataract surgery that rates a $7500 co-pay per eye over here, costs $1500 per eye over there, even if paid completely out of pocket.

Talk about cost control! So, now is anybody else interested in the Australian approach?

Our debate has devolved to the politics of fear over here. It invokes “capitalism” vs “socialism”, when those labels hardly apply.

I suggest that those shouting “socialism” need to go look that word up. Having a government-run program is not “socialism”, contrary to what so many very-vocal medicare recipients would have you believe.

Some of them seem not to know that medicare actually is a government-run program. And, one that would work, if funded and managed properly without regard to party politics.

Quite frankly, I am tired of all the vicious propaganda from both sides, but which recently is all the more obnoxious from the “far right”. That bunch fancies itself the standard-bearer for “conservatism”, but labels anyone in disagreement with its extremist position “liberal”.

Most of America is really rather “centrist” in its views, which puts most of us in the “liberal” camp, even if we do not admit it. That difference between “centrist” and “far right” is actually why the Democrats now control the White House and both houses of Congress.

As for extremist propaganda, I liken it to crying “fire” in a crowded theater when there isn’t one. That is quite properly a criminal act in all 50 states.

None of the 5 health care reform bills before our House and Senate will pass in anything resembling their current forms. There is much debate and compromise to be done, to forge actually-workable ideas out of what is now still political crap.

That is, there is debate and compromise to be done, if our politicians will act like the statesmen we hired them to be. If they don’t, they should be thrown out.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Analysis of Yet Another "Hit Piece"

A friend sent me a popular email forward that was really a "hit piece" about the President. There were many editorial comments from each forwarder (deleted here), but the "meat" was the link to a "DC beltway" blogsite.

Remember, there is nothing non-political from that area. All who work there have a hidden political agenda. Here is the link to the original article that sparked the forward:


This article basically makes a complaint that we are financing Brazilian offshore oil exploration with American monies. The article's slant is that our President would rather invest with foreigners than in his own country. The article does mention US offshore oil discoveries in the Gulf and both coasts. I am very surprised that it did not mention the Wyoming oil shales and the Alberta tar sands. Most of these pieces do mention them, usually in a way that implies they are ready to yield "easy oil".

My Analysis:

This stuff is true enough, as stated, but is quite misleading because of what it implies, and what it leaves out. Its conclusion is wrong, and all the more glaring because it is so transparently pre-ordained. The subtitle and second sentence tip that hand.

Implied: The article probably overstates the size of remaining US offshore and arctic reserves, and probably overstates the size of the new Brazilian offshore discovery relative to actual oil usage. None of these are large enough to eliminate US dependence upon middle eastern oil, even if we had all of them right now.

The truth: According to the refereed professional publication journal "Science", US oil production is now half what it was during its 1970 peak, and the trend has been steeply downward for the last 20 years. The sum of all known and projected remaining US reserves of drillable oil is far less than that shortfall. If Americans want to use oil, much of it must be foreign imports. There is no way to avoid that inconvenient fact.

Left Out: There are tremendous "local" petroleum deposits, in the Wyoming oil shales and the Alberta tar sands. These are said to be the equivalent of the largest finds in history, those being the giant oil fields under the middle east, and under the US Gulf Coast states. Unfortunately, the middle eastern fields are now in peak production, with depletion expected in less than 30 years, while the Gulf Coast states deposits are now already essentially depleted.

The (bitter) truth: But, oil shales and tar sands are not drillable oil. These are thick tar-like "petroleum" spread very thinly inside the pores of vast volumes of relatively impermeable rock. Oil shales and tar sands must be mined, not drilled, by very dirty strip-mining methods, on a scale far exceeding the whole-mountaintop-removal methods we now use for coal. Then that rock has to be broken-up, transported, crushed, ground, and thoroughly cooked to release the heavy tar. Then and only then may actual refining even begin, and being tar, lots of energy-intensive "cracking" is required. Think $4/gal was bad? This stuff will range between $40 and $400 /gal.

My conclusions:

Recent perhaps-stupid court decisions about what is leasible aside, anything that can get us oil from a friendly country, and one not part of OPEC, is a good deal in my book. Brazil has long been a good friend, and may well charge us a decent price. Not being part of OPEC means the oil money we pay them does not filter through the middle eastern countries to their favorite "charities": the very terrorists that we fight!

Far from being a reason to slam Mr. Obama, this Brazilian deal thing is actually a reason to praise him!

The misleading slant of the article reveals its true purpose as a political "hit piece". There's way too much of this stuff forwarding around out there, and way too many people (smart enough to know better) are falling for it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Space Program Public Support

Two related stories from 9-3-09 AIAA “Daily Launch”, about the future (if any?) of NASA. Bold italic subscripts added by me to relate to comments below.

Augustine Committee Report To Present "Tough Choices" To Administration.

US News and World Report (9/2, Lylte) reports, "Space exploration is at a crossroads," with NASA's scheduled retirement of the space shuttle next year. "Under severe financial constraints, President Obama must decide whether to continue on the current course" of creating a new launch system (1) "and infuse the space program with billions of dollars, or scale back the efforts and risk losing the leadership role the United States holds in space exploration." As the Augustine committee "gets ready to deliver its report to the White House and release it publicly later this month, the White House is finding out just how tough the choices will be," and "the White House and Congress will have to answer some thorny questions," such as if the shuttle or ISS programs should be extended, and if sending people into space should be a commercial, not governmental, task (2). As the charge to the "committee was to work mostly within the current budget," it the report "will most likely present an option that will try to excite the public imagination without a major infusion of cash," such as "a 'deep space' plan for flying out of Earth's orbit but not landing (3) on major planets or large moons."

Orion Could Be Used For Asteroid Missions.

SPACE.com (9/2, Covault) reports, "A manned asteroid mission using two Orion spacecraft, docked nose-to-nose (4) to form a 50-ton deep space vehicle, is being studied by Lockheed Martin Space Systems as an alternative to resumption of US lunar landing missions." Space.com adds that using Orion "for asteroid missions and other deep space sites would maximize utilization of the Orion system if lunar landings are deleted as a near term goal." While "the official NASA line has been solidly 'all moon' for the last several years," despite "more realistic assessments" showing it "is not feasible, NASA more recently became "more open about an asteroid mission capability for Orion after space scientists and planners meeting before formation of the committee began to criticize the lunar goal as too fragile." Meanwhile, "a Lockheed Martin video "shown in early August at a propulsion conference in Denver sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics" had "the twin Orion configuration closely orbiting an asteroid while space suited astronauts explore its surface." The video was "part of a presentation delivered by former astronaut Brian Duffy, now Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager for the Altair lunar module part of the Orion lunar landing infrastructure," that "also cited satellite servicing that could be performed by astronauts from an Orion configuration, equipped with a shuttle-type manipulator arm deployed from its service module."

My comments:

Point (1) – They’re all missing the point of the Ares launch system. Under "Constellation" architecture, both the Saturn-1-like Ares-1 and the Saturn-5-like Ares-5 are required. Men ride up in the Orion capsule on the Ares-1. The Ares-5 may not even be man-rated, it is just a heavy lifter, far outclassing anything available or under development. Going into deep space (meaning out of Earth orbit) manned is beyond anything but a Saturn-5 class rocket. Period. We’re locked in: either finish the job or overtly decide to abdicate all capability for manned exploration and utilization missions.

Point (2) – They’re all failing to learn from history. The most successful colonial powers half a millennium ago had it closer to right. Government is better suited for exploration and for advanced technology leaps. Enterprise is better suited to utilization and colony development, using the results of the government efforts. We Americans have NEVER, EVER done it that way. We should. It works.

Point (3) – There’s no point to emasculating an exploration mission by not landing. It is being there that captures peoples’ imagination, not ogling-from-a-distance.

Point (4) – This proposal addresses an actual (but unstated, and probably not understood) need (information recovery for effective asteroid defense) but lacks at least three critical features for success (meaning survival of the crew):

Living space: Even with the full Ares rocket family behind it, these asteroid missions will typically have 6 month to two-year flight times. Two capsule volumes are not enough living space for a time like that. They need to dock these capsules to a reprise of “Skylab” made from an Ares-5 upper stage.

Radiation protection: Thin aluminum shells provide no protection from lethal solar storms. A steel plate shelter packed inside a utility water tank would. Orion capsules can never be modified to provide this, but a “Skylab”-like habitation module could include it.

Artificial Gravity: This is required for missions exceeding about one year, as has been known since the Russian “Salyut” space station series a quarter century ago. The only available physics for this is centrifugal force. We already know what spin rates are tolerable, but we do not know how much gee is enough. No centrifuge or spinning craft design is possible with Orion alone, but it is easily incorporated into a “Skylab”-type design.

Flight times: Although not critical at all for the first few (minimally-demanding) manned missions, later more demanding missions will require that we fly much faster. This will require very energetic (specific impulses above 5000 sec) and very powerful (vehicle accelerations above 0.1 gee) propulsion. Nothing is available, although there are a couple of old ideas that could be resurrected. The final form(s) will undoubtedly be nuclear in nature, but not with solid reactor cores. This kind of stuff is too dangerous to develop and test on Earth. Propulsion development tests cannot be done hanging weightless in space, where every test is a flight test. So, there is a real reason to return to the moon after all: put a nuclear propulsion development station there, so the technology will be ready when we need it.

My conclusion: The sooner we face these inconvenient truths and deal with them, the sooner we can put our space program efforts back onto a rational basis that everyone can understand, and the sooner we will capture the public’s imagination, and its sustained support, once again.

The truth about public education in Texas

A friend recently sent me a popular email forward about public education, one that I have seen before. Here is the text of that popular forward:

After being interviewed by the school administration, the prospective teacher said:

'Let me see if I've got this right.

'You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instill in them a love for learning.

'You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.

'You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job.

'You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behavior, and make sure that they all pass the final exams.

'You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card.

'You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a few books, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.

'You want me to do all this and then you tell me. . . I CAN'T PRAY?

This was the essence of my reply to my friend:

Having taught math in two high schools, I can tell you that the email is a pretty accurate description of the situation. It is not exaggerated in any way. In point of fact, it is understated: they also expect you to teach-to-the-test instead of teaching the subject, while still accomplishing educational miracles. And, that test (in all its incarnations over the last several years) is a bonehead-level multiple-choice thing that never tests for anything beyond 9th grade, and precious little of that.

You see, I know exactly what is on the Texas 9th, 10th, and exit (11th) grade TAKS math tests. They differ only (ONLY!!!!!) in the number of problems. Start at 52, add 4 more each year. Same pool of nothing but 9th grade algebra-1 problems. No geometry, no algebra-2, nothing advanced at all.

The Texas state minimum salary for a beginning teacher is about $21 K /year. Only the richest districts pay more than minimum. The federal poverty definition for a family of 3 is over $27 K /year. No junior high ever hires a full-time math teacher to teach the critical junior-high math. Only coaches are used for that. By far, most of them "worksheet" the students, instead of instructing in the subject. A substantial fraction of them actually do not know the math themselves. Typically, coaches are paid twice what full-time instructors are paid. It's the only way to attract any.

The "accountability" of the test has completely backfired, as was already known over a decade ago. By linking school funding to test scores that no one can control, they encourage two very destructive things: (1) teaching-to-the-test, meaning only teaching how to check answers on a multiple-choice test with a calculator, instead of how to actually do the math, and (2) cheating on the test, which is really, really easy to do, and is very, very widespread.

In point of fact, the widely-touted "Texas miracle" that enabled Bush-43 to push through "No Child Left Behind" in Congress, was in reality a Houston school district that was later exposed as a blatant cheat.

I'm just glad I'm out of that game, instead now teaching college at Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas, these last 2 years. Yet we have to deal every day with the product of that defunct public educational system. It was completely destroyed by a boneheaded "standardized" test and the related politically-motivated notions of "accountability" that were really nothing but a draw for votes. I am really pissed off that people (especially those here in Texas where I live) keep re-electing the assholes who did this.

The biggest on-going effort in TSTC's math department is "developmental math", meaning remediation of students, with diplomas, who were never actually taught anything at all. I know, I teach some of it as well as the "full-contact" college math. I have seen one student mis-placed into a college algebra class, who could not even add 2 and 3, and get 5, on his fingers!!!

Believe it. It is true. It was in my class that I saw this.

It is no different at MCC, at Baylor, at UT, at A&M, at Tech, or anywhere else in the state. There are a precious tiny handful of school districts that still actually teach. The rest just run "Friday night lights" as their main business.

This utter disaster is just another one of the little "open secrets" that no one has had the courage to reveal to the public. It would wreck too many still-ongoing political careers, I guess.

Here's the really frightening part. Now the politicians in Austin are making their first moves toward foisting this disaster upon higher education, too. You would not believe the pressures on me from high officials to pass students who do not deserve it. But it is true.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Funny Internet Forward Is Really Not So Funny

This seemingly-funny document is actually a right-wing “hit piece” that a friend forwarded to me. At first glance, it seems quite accurate (on a shallow level). It reinforces the conservative economic notions that most of us actually have, but it is actually quite misleading on some points, and it propagates dead-wrong lies about a couple of others.

See appended below the original document in boldface type, with my not-boldface comments inserted. The document’s final conclusion about replacing most of our elected politicians is "dead-nuts-on", although it was probably originally intended to turn us against the current administration and Congress.

The U.S. Postal Service was established in 1775 - you have had 234 years to get it right; it is broke.

Because it is the only game in town. Nothing competes with first class mail. Because nothing wants to compete, we have to make up our minds whether we want to continue this service as a tax supported item.

Social Security was established in 1935 - you have had 74 years to get it right; it is broke.

The original version under FDR might not have gone broke. It had its own separate funding account. The mistake was violating the original law to put SS funds into the general fund. This was done “to reduce the deficit” by exactly the kind of accounting that caused the Great Depression, the Savings and Loan scandal, the junk bond scandal, and the Wall Street crash of 2008-2009. Congress did it, and the courts let ‘em do it.

Fannie Mae was established in 1938 - you have had 71 years to get it right; it is broke.

This entity was set up to make government-mandated risky loans, and in the 90’s, was mandated to make even riskier loans. The fix is easy and simple: failing a good faith effort to pay it back, the mortgagee goes into the army to work it off. By the way, same thing applies to the student loans I see abused every day teaching at TSTC, but no one complains about.

War on Poverty started in 1964 - you have had 45 years to get it right; $1 trillion of our money is confiscated each year and transferred to "the poor"; it hasn't worked.

Government giveaway “programs” and welfare payments do not work. Jobs do. So also do job programs that create jobs, not just job training. We have had none since the 30’s, when they worked very, very well. Bring back the WPA and CCC ideas, and millions will leave poverty, permanently.

Medicare and Medicaid were established in 1965 - you've had 44 years to get it right; they're broke.

These were actually working well until the population bulge of the baby boomers threatened the numbers. The way around this is simple: extra revenue funding until the “bulge” passes. Then they will be solvent again. These programs are examples of government programs that actually can work well, when managed and funded properly. Very simply, this is because they are not the only game in town. There are competing services by which to judge their performance.

Freddie Mac was established in 1970 - you have had 39 years to get it right; it is broke.

Same comment as for Fannie Mae applies, in spades.

Trillions of dollars in the massive political payoff called the TARP bill of 2009 shows NO sign of working.

The statement is false on its face: the bailout did work, in that Wall Street is recovering nicely, thank you very much, although the recovery hasn’t reached anyone else yet (because “trickle-down economics” doesn’t really work). The real problem here is that the Wall Street giants were too large to let fail, because of the collateral damage. If we in some way prevent such giants from ever forming in the first place, we can let the market actually work, we can afford to let them fail. Thus we avoid any need for any future bailouts. So, how about a “market share tax” to discourage growth to threatening size? (This would apply to any industry).

And finally to set a new record:

"Cash for Clunkers" was established in 2009 and went broke in 2009! It took good dependable cars ( that were the best some people could afford ) replaced them with high priced ( people who couldn't afford to are now making payments ) mostly Japanese models so a good percentage of the profits, from the sales, went out of the country. And lastly, the American taxpayers are now going to be dinged with paying for yet 3 billion more dollars of our governments experiments to make our wallets even thinner.

Another lie. This program worked just fine, but suffered from egregious and malicious underfunding, just like NASA. In an age when oil imports threaten our economy, our foreign policy, and our national security, getting older gas-guzzlers and polluters off the road is a good idea. In a sour economy, anything that stimulates sales and manufacturing production is a good idea. In an age when the Japanese car companies are building cars in America with American workers, and the US car companies are building cars overseas with overseas workers, the “buy American” argument is both wrong and entirely inappropriate.

So with a perfect 100% failure rate and a record that proves that "services" you shove down our throats are failing faster and faster, you want Americans to believe you can be trusted with a government-run health care system? 15% of our economy? Are you crazy?

Here is what this "hit piece" is really about. With a couple of exceptions, the other western democracies do health care delivery just fine. We Americans have never corrected the massive abuses-for-profit of the pharmaceuticals giants, the medical insurance industry, and the malpractice-lawsuit “industry” in this country. If we corrected only those, we would be far better off, no matter what model we use for healthcare delivery.

Besides, there are many models for health care delivery, not just our private insurance-tied-to-employment approach, vs the British/Canadian approach that demonstrably fails (they are my “couple of exceptions”). Why has no one looked at Scandinavia, France, and Germany? What are they doing? What is Japan doing?

Most importantly, why do we not know what those other countries are doing? The answer is very telling: basically, because it is politically expedient in American party politics to frame the health care debate in terms of capitalism vs socialism, when in fact those labels hardly apply at all. They did it to us during the Clinton-era attempt to reform health care, they’ve been doing it ever since. We have a bunch of bad politicians, not statesmen, who hold the offices in control of all of these things.

Truly, the inmates are running the asylum! And what does this say about voters who put such pond scum in office? Maybe we need to let others in on this brilliant record before 2010 and just vote against incumbents.

My point, for some time now, exactly!! Vote for no incumbent unless you can personally verify that he did more good than harm while in office! (His political party is irrelevant to this decision.) Very, very few qualify.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Foreign Street Scene

I was recently fortunate enough to take a trip to Granada, Spain, for a technical meeting. While there, I got to tour around the city some, and to visit the local national monument (the Alhambra).

I want to call your attention to this photograph, one of many I took. This is a street scene in Granada, down one of the pedestrian avenues. It is typical of every place I went.

There are many food vendors in this vicinity. Look closely, there is something in this view that you will not see. Take a guess what it is.

Give up?

There is not one speck of litter!

I saw no litter anywhere in Granada. I did see some grafitti, mostly in the artists' quarter of town. But no litter. None. I saw no crews picking up litter, either.

What I saw were plentiful trash cans, and a population that used them. I saw people proud enough of where they lived to keep it clean.

You cannot say that about Waco (or just about any other town in America). You cannot drive a hundred yards in this town without seeing litter on or near the street, sometimes mountains of it.

That speaks very poorly of us as a people.

No wonder Americans are disliked elsewhere in this world. This is probably as much for our lousy personal habits, as anything to do with our foreign policies.

My fellow citizens, clean up your act!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On the Future of US Manned Space Program

The anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing got me thinking about why public support for NASA has ebbed. The reason is simple: Earth orbit is not a new place to be explored, so it no longer inspires enthusiasm.

Operations there are necessary, of course, but they are not exploration. They are utilization, which is not glamorous.

To recapture the public's imagination and support, NASA must send both robots and men to new places. The broad support for the Mars rovers and landers is clear evidence of this effect.

Even returning to the moon may not capture the public imagination, because we have already been there. Without something new and grand, such as a real colony, going back to the moon is utilization, same as Earth orbit.

Exploration is "out there somewhere new". Destinations that capture the imagination are Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the asteroids and comets. To inspire, that is where we must go, with robots and with men.

That will require far better rockets than we have ever built, a way to shield against bursts of lethal solar radiation, and some sort of artificial gravity to stave off the permanent bone loss that occurs after about a year in weightlessness.

It would also be helpful if there were some less expensive way to reach the jumping-off point: Earth orbit. That means we need a real "space plane" of some kind.

Far Better Propulsion

"Far better rockets" are most likely nuclear items. I suggest we resurrect the nuclear explosion propulsion concepts from old Project Orion of 1959-1965, and the gas-core nuclear thermal rocket concepts from old Project Rover of 1959-1972.

Key requirements are very high thrust to weight ratio at very high specific impulse (efficiency). Our ion and plasma jet engines have the efficiency, but not the thrust-to-weight. Flying with them is still way too slow, excepting perhaps something called VASIMR.

Long ago, we learned from Project Rover that the nuclear stuff is too dangerous to test here on Earth. We learned this from testing actual nuclear rocket engines in Nevada between 1959 and 1972, although few today remember it.

Project Rover was killed when President Nixon killed Apollo in the middle of 12 planned missions. By extension, he also killed the planned 1980's Mars landing. Without a Mars mission, Rover was "not needed."

How shortsighted!

The tale is even more sordid for old Project Orion, which was funded by USAF, not NASA. That concept was even more powerful than the nuclear rockets of Project Rover. Its original design mission was a 3-year voyage to Saturn and back, in a spacious and comfortable vehicle similar in size and construction to a small ocean liner!

When the USAF space program was dismantled and given to NASA, they saw Orion as a competitor to Rover, not as a complement. So it died for lack of funding.

Yet these concepts could still be used today. They are just forgotten.

A Real Reason to Return to the Moon

The airless, waterless, uninhabited moon hangs within our reach, with the rockets that we already have. I cannot think of a better reason to return to the moon than to put a nuclear propulsion development station there.
It is a stable, safe place to "play" with dangerous stuff. It is almost as if God put it there for us, precisely for that purpose. You cannot develop new rockets hanging around weightless in space, where every test is a flight test.

We could use the new NASA Ares rockets, or something from the commercial side like Spacex's Falcon-9, or even the existing heavy launchers like Delta, to get to the moon. But it will be the nuclear stuff built on the moon that gets robots and men to Mars and other places very fast.

Protecting Human Crews

Men will require a suitable habitat in which to live during these voyages. A cramped capsule simply will not do. Something like the old Skylab or Mir space stations, coupled to the fast nuclear propulsion, is a more realistic approach.

There must be room inside for artificial gravity by centrifuge, or else the entire vessel must spin. That spinning piece sets the size of the ship. The two critical questions are: how fast a spin can we tolerate, and how much artificial gravity is enough?

Nothing we have ever done, including the ISS space station, answers that second question. Maybe that's an experimental item we should add to the ISS.

The exploration ship must also offer protection from solar radiation storms. A thin sheet-aluminum shell will not do. At least a part of the ship must be constructed of heavier stuff, like steel plate, which is quite heavy. (That's another reason for developing very powerful propulsion.)

Access to Orbit

Any future space plane project, for access to Earth orbit, should heed lessons-learned: no parallel stacks, no political footballs for budgets, and no dependence solely on rocket propulsion (like the 1990's X-33). I suggest parallel-burn rocket with plain ramjet during a fast ascent, not the re-entry-in-reverse usually assumed for scramjets like 1980's X-30.

Further, to be cheap, it has to be reusable the way an airliner is reusable. That requires a very structurally robust vehicle, leaving less room for fuel.

It will probably be a "two-stage airplane", with a rocket-and-ramjet propulsion rig on the orbiter stage. The space plane designers need to talk to the missile people about compact combined rocket-ramjet technologies. That never happened in all the previous projects, including the retiring space shuttle.

Destinations and Reasons to Go There

Going to the moon is not exploration, but utilization. However, it must be first on the list, so that the immensely powerful propulsion we need can be safely developed.
As for human exploration destinations, perhaps the nearby Earth-crossing asteroids should be next. We actually have a need to go there: learning how to deflect the ones that threaten to hit us. We really need to find out in detail what they are made of, and how they are put together, to accomplish that goal successfully.

Next is Mars, of course. It has captured people's imaginations for centuries, and will continue to do so until people have explored it fairly thoroughly. That effort should morph directly into a utilization colony, without the decades-long interruption we saw on the moon.

Then, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. After that, who knows?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Another Antique Comes Out of Storage

The pictures show two old-time air-cooled VW “beetles”, basically a 1933 technology. Both were actually running when the pictures were snapped.

The blue one is a 1973 model that spent two stints in deep preserved storage on the Idea Farm, one about 5 years, the second about 3 years. It has been running since 2005 as a daily job commuter, and since October 2006 as the “ethanol VW” experiment.

The white one is a 1960 model that spent a continuous 14 years in deep preservation storage on the Idea Farm. That is a very rigorous test of the preservation techniques, which actually proved very successful.

The blue VW runs just fine on E-85 ethanol fuel, which is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. I did the modifications myself at no out-of-pocket cost, just some labor. Being an antique, I now drive it slower, but in earlier days, it was quite capable of hard use at full highway speeds, being about 60 HP. It was the car I bought for my wife, when we were first married.

The white VW “woke up” on a stiff gasohol blend, E-34, which is 34% ethanol and 66% gasoline. This blend burns fine in any 4-stroke engine, completely unmodified. I chose it for its high octane, much better than premium gasoline, and for its cleaner-burning characteristics relative to plain gasoline.

This old white VW is the car I learned to drive in, and that I drove to school and to work for over 30 years. The engine is about 40 HP, and its top speed is about today’s highway speed. It makes the other VW seem quite “new”.

The deep preservation methods actually worked quite well, in spite of the fact that this old white VW was the very first car I tried them on. About the only serious problem was some water-induced corrosion, traceable to a brake system flush I did converting over to DOT-5 silicone brake fluid. I now know exactly how to avoid that “next time”.

The only other one left to return to an operable state is the 1969 VW camper bus (not pictured here).

Monday, June 15, 2009

On the Election Unrest in Iran

Well, it looks like the secretive ruling mullahs in Iran got caught stealing the election. The unexpected strength of the moderate opposition seems to have scared them into attempting to forestall a political upset.

Although self-styled as the "Islamic Republic of Iran" since the Shah fell and the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979, Iran is definitely not a democracy or a republic. The mullahs pull all the strings from the shadows, having the revolutionary constitutional power to override the "elected government".

This particular religious dictatorship ultimately espouses a cultural return to the 10th century, with enslavement of women, and the deprivation of all modern forms of communication and entertainment. That prescription should sound awfully familiar, as it is exactly that espoused by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda, and thousands of other such groups.

In Iran, the mullahs have been moving very slowly in that direction, because many Iranians are well-educated, and would understand such oppression for what it really is. However, if one replaces education with religious indoctrination, after a time one ends up with an ignorant population that will willingly submit to domination "in God's name".

Examples of this educational effect include the illiterate tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban took over quickly. In Pakistan's Swat Valley, people were literate, and opposed a Taliban takeover there, albeit only with the help of the Pakistani army.

The continuing massive unrest in the streets of Iran seems also to have taken the mullahs by surprise. They are now backpedaling a bit, calling for an "investigation" of the election fraud claims. However, the outcome would seem to be pre-ordained: no dictator ever gives up power willingly.

I predict that there must be another revolution in Iran, in order to throw the mullahs out and establish a true republic or democracy. Whether this will actually happen is at best unclear, but it is clear that the scale of the protest has made the mullahs fear such a revolution.

Scared dictators do have a history of lashing out. This could get very ugly.

I think it much more likely that the mullahs will maintain their dictatorship by means of armed oppression. If they win, expect nuclear war in the Mideast as soon as they accumulate enough weapons-grade materials.

They would do this in part to deflect attention from their domestic activities. Hitler did the same thing starting World War 2 in Europe.

As I said, this could get very ugly.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

On Bad Healthcare and Bad Government

A friend recently sent me an article describing how the new President’s campaign promise of healthcare reform might be far more expensive than previously thought. The tone of the article clearly reflected its author’s stance with the opposition. I saw nothing new in the article’s arguments, warning as it did about the “perils of socialized medicine”. Actually, I have seen little new from either side in this debate, for many, many years.

I think the President is bumping into an ugly reality on this issue. The choices appear to be to put bandages on the existing employer/insurance-driven system, or go to a government-run system. I disagree. Although I do not know what they might be, I feel very strongly that there must be some other choices available.

It will take “thinking outside the usual political box” to resolve this issue successfully for the American people. However, just as in years past, everyone is entrenching into their two opposed traditional positions, and no one anywhere is approaching this problem with the open, inquiring mind that is required.

One of the two positions seems to be to maintain the existing multi-provider health-for-profit system, with the pharmaceutical corporations and the malpractice lawyers making a very corrupt “killing”, and multiple insurance companies with their duplicated overheads unable to make a killing unless they cheat.

They cheat by defeating what was for us the point of insurance at all: a big pool to spread costs. These insurance companies are so horribly inefficient that they are only profitable if they carefully pick their pools (read that as covering only those who never get sick). The byzantine rules and out-of-control premium costs effectively deny adequate coverage to something like 1 in 4 of us, if not more.

The other position is "single payer", a euphemism for the British system of fully-socialized, government-run "health care" that is really merely rationing in a completely dis-incentivized environment. Others point at the Canadians, but they use exactly the same system as the British. In either country, health care delivery for all but the most routine things is usually bureaucratically delayed until the patient dies. Effectively, that is really how costs are cut to tax-supportable levels.

As far as I am concerned, both approaches are abject failures!

I do not know exactly what the Scandinavians are doing, but I do know these four things about what they do:

(1) everyone is covered,

(2) the total of their taxes is comparable to the total of all our taxes at all levels of government (both totals are about 65% when you include Social Security in our total, which goes into the general fund, and has for decades; that's effectively a tax),

(3) on the average Scandinavians live 10 years longer than Americans, and

(4) their oldsters are healthier later into life than ours, so that old age there is much pleasanter than old age here has become.

With respect to point (2), let me add: those three countries also maintain large, well-equipped, and formidable military establishments, comparable to ours in a per-capita sense. I know of the military endeavors of the Swedish and the Norwegians from my days in the defense industry. I presume the Danish are similar, although I never had any dealings with them.

As I already said, I do not know exactly what they are doing in those three countries to provide health care for their peoples, but those four items I just listed above, make a powerful argument to go look. Maybe there is something they do that we can adapt and use here.

We ought to at least look!

Here is the only reason that I can see, as to why this possibility has been excluded from our debate here in America: the “very loud-talking” money of the entrenched special interests. In this case that would be the gigantic (and international) pharmaceutical corporations, the trial lawyers groups, and the big insurance companies themselves. These giants have enough “petty cash” to have bought almost all of Congress. We the people are nothing but a disposable source of income to them.

A representative owned by these giants will vote against the interests of the people every time the issue comes up. Further, as a group, they will hide this pattern by cloaking the debate in terms of opposing ideological positions that are in fact logically ridiculous. And that is exactly what has been going on for over 20 years on this issue.

This happens on a lot of issues critical to the American people, not just health care. And it is about to happen again on healthcare.

And THAT is why I recommend voting against all incumbents, unless one can personally verify that an incumbent did more good than harm while in office. VERY FEW qualify, in my book. (I found only three out of all the choices at all levels on the last ballot, although I have now identified a fourth.) It does take time for a freshman representative to put down roots into the “good-old-boy” corruption system. Therefore, that garden requires frequent weeding. And we-the-people have NOT been doing our weeding.

And THAT is why we have bad government.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Plea for a More Civil Political Discourse

I get a lot of forwarded e-mail letters and articles from friends and acquaintances. Many of these are, shall we say, unfavorable toward our new President and his administration.

Over the decades, I have learned that jokes and opinions adverse to sitting Presidents are quite normal. But, in the last couple of decades, I have noticed two things that disturb me greatly.

One is the vitriol, the sheer unadulterated defamation, in lots of the recent material that I have seen. This is clear evidence of a hatred that is poisoning our collective political life, and that is dangerous.

The other disturbing trend is that this hate campaign has been directed not just at the current sitting President, but at his party even when it was not in power. This tells me a lot about the very negative thinking of those who actually produce this stuff.

I am not a Democrat. Nor am I a Republican. Over the years, both parties have advanced proposals that I have liked, and other proposals that I have detested. Over the years, I have picked and chosen candidates whom I felt would do good things for America, regardless of their party. In my opinion, that is what all Americans should do.

Now, over the last several decades, I did tend to vote for more Republican ideas than Democrats, because those ideas back then were generally more moderate: a more moderate size of government, moderation in spending, etc. This was actually a very centrist position, by today’s standards. I like centrist stuff. It is usually the least intrusive, least harmful.

The problem is, today’s GOP is not the party of moderation anymore. The last traditional Republican (moderate-politics) President I can remember was Eisenhower. In recent decades, the closest thing I saw to that moderate ideal was Bill Clinton, the Democrat! In much of what he did, he was closer to the mold of the moderate Republicans of old. He balanced the budget, reformed some welfare into workfare, and he did not start any wars. This was entirely unlike Reagan, Bush 41, or Bush 43, all Republicans.

The departure of Arlen Specter from the GOP is a very public example of something that has been going on since before Reagan. The “power base” of the GOP was once politically-moderate folk of a strong connection to big business, just as the “power base” of the Democrats were the politically-moderate folk of a stronger connection to organized labor. Both parties had their extremists: the GOP included some very “right-wing” extremists, while the Democrats had both right wing extremists (“Southern conservatives”) and the “far left liberals”.

The makeup of the Democrats is still mostly unchanged: a moderate core and lots of fringe wackos on the left, although they lost most of the Southern conservative extremists to the GOP.

In contrast, the “power base” of the GOP shifted sharply to the extremist conservatives, plus what amounts to some very intolerant Christian religious extremists (the so-called “evangelicals”). After that shift, the party essentially began purging itself of moderates, such as Specter. That is why fewer and fewer people identify themselves as Republicans in the polls any more.

Unless the GOP becomes less extremist and more inclusive, or unless a new party espousing moderation arises, then I think that the best hope of obtaining moderate politics and policies now lies with the Democrats, at least for the next few years. Yet, one of the reasons I voted for more Republicans than Democrats over the previous decades was a tendency of the Democrats to get taken-over by their own “left-wing liberal” membership, just about election campaign time. That still happens.

Even so, I am pleased with the selection of Mr. Obama by the Democrats, and that he won the election. Obama and McCain were both moderates within their parties, both “centrist” politicians. These two men were closer to each other in their politics than either was to his party’s “base”. I simply think that the polyglot political baggage of the Democrats is less harmful to us right now, than the right-wing extremist baggage of the GOP. It’s a lesser-of-two-evils thing.

That brings me back to the vitriolic and defaming email forwards. These were directed at the Democrats all through the presidency of Bush 43, and were particularly mean-spirited about Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton during the long campaign for the last election. A lot of these were “photo-shopped” images or “testimonials” depicting Obama as unpatriotic and un-American. Some of it was quite clumsy and easily spotted for what it was. After a while, even the jokes are no longer funny. This stuff is still being produced and circulated.

The latest egregious example is a careful quoting-out-of-context of Mr. Obama, who said “America is not a Christian country”, with the implication that we are not religious at all. The full text actually says “not a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim country”. The full meaning, in proper context, is that this country is not just one of these, but all of these, and much more besides. His meaning is entirely positive, and very inclusive, even of those who do not believe. It certainly includes all Christians, and not just those who pass the “litmus tests” for the extremist Christian religious right.

The election is over. We are being tested by multiple emergencies that transcend all politics. We desperately need our President to succeed, no matter who he is. This continuing campaign of political hatred actually endangers America.

It has to stop.

I submit to you all that Barry Goldwater was wrong back in 1964 when he said that “extremism … was no vice”. It is a terrible vice. And it is a potent danger, whether in politics or religion. After all, it is extremist religious fanatics that we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. That they are Muslim matters not. It is the extremism, not the brand of religion, that drives them to do Satan’s work for him: to kill others for God.

As LBJ once said “come let us reason together”; and let’s do it in the moderate center of our political and religious lives.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Asteroid Defense and a Good Reason for Having National Space Programs

This planet is at some risk for the impact of an asteroid or comet. The last time a "big one" hit us, it was extinction for the dinosaurs.

I will be attending the First IAA International Planetary Defense Conference in Granada, Spain, the last week in April. That conference will look at ways and means to defend ourselves from this threat.

I am going because my paper from last fall was accepted for poster presentation. It concerns the potential benefits of adding electrostatic attraction to the "gravity tractor" concept, one of several possibilities.

For asteroid deflection defense overall, there are three serious ("killer") concerns as I see it:

(1) adequate warning time is beyond our technical means for the more numerous smaller bodies,

(2) no adequate propulsion exists to get out there quick enough to do any good,

(3) most of the few objects sampled so far appear to be loose rubble piles, not solid objects capable being pushed by most of the deflection force concepts.

Item (3) - the rubble-pile problem:

The gravity tractor is attractive for item (3) because it is a body force, and could "tow" a sand pile with the force of gravity as the tow cable. We already have the micro-thrust ion and plasma thrusters that could do this job.

The gravity tractor requires long lead times because the forces are so small. It takes a long time to build up deflection effects, which is why items (1) and (2) are such conceptual "killers".

My electrostatic upgrade to the gravity tractor provides a "tow cable" that might be 4 orders of magnitude stronger, for very little added equipment to the spacecraft. Getting more deflection faster eases somewhat "killer" items (1) and (2), and, it just might make possible a second attempt if the first fails.

Item (2) - the response-time problem:

In my opinion, item (2) can be solved by dusting off the old 1950's "Project Orion" concept for nuclear explosion propulsion. That's the nearest-term super-powerful atomic rocket concept available, and we did everything but put one together and test it, back then.

There is also the solid core nuclear thermal rocket, which we actually did build and test quite successfully about 1959-1972. It is a lot less powerful than the explosion approach, but still far better than the best chemical rockets.

The solid core nuclear rocket has a more powerful cousin, gas core nuclear, which was well-studied experimentally, but never built and tested as a rocket engine, about 1965-1972. With any of these, the idea is to get out there very quickly, with multiple options for deflection forces, and do whatever is needed, based on what you find when you get there.

Item (1) - the distant-detection problem:

We need some observation equipment dispersed out there in space, all around the solar system, to find and characterize these things. Immensely-powerful propulsion would make this possible in a realistic fashion.

The key to all of this, and much more, is therefore immensely-powerful propulsion:

We need that nuclear explosion drive, and the gas core nuclear thermal rocket, for a variety of compelling reasons besides asteroid defense. Our past history with solid core nuclear thermal rockets says that neither of these is safe to do, down here on Earth.

Space stations are no help. You cannot develop rocket engines hanging weightless in space, where every test is a flight test.

But, as if made-to-order by God for us, the moon waits, only 240,000 miles from home. Airless, waterless, and uninhabited, it truly is a safe place to test dangerous things.

I cannot think of a better reason to go back to the moon, than to test and develop those immensely-powerful atomic rockets.

G.W. Johnson 4-21-09

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On Tax Rebellions, Tea Party Campaigns, and Secession Movements

On Tax Rebellions, Tea Party Campaigns, and Secession Movements

These things are pointless attention-getting behavior. They are staged either for, or taken advantage of by, those with hidden agendas.

Simply voting the bastards out, to end corruption in government, would accomplish pretty much the same end, and with a lot less trouble and collateral damage than any attempted secession, tea party, insurrection, or other defiant or violent acts.

The problem we face lies within both parties, and is quite independent of their agendas and ideologies. Both parties are completely corrupt, and most of the candidates they bring to us are also completely corrupt.

Special interest money talks way too loudly in all levels of American politics. Party agendas always seem to trump doing the people's business. All of this is very wrong.

In recent decades, both parties' political agendas have been and still are the most egregious crap. It is through debate and compromise that we get ideas that might actually work.

I have not seen any willingness (in either party) to engage in real debate and compromise, not since before the "Reagan Revolution" of 1980. Pathetic.

I recommend: vote for no incumbent unless you can personally verify that he/she did more good than harm while in office. Very few will qualify, if any.

It takes time to put down "roots" in the corruption system. That "garden" therefore needs frequent weeding. This is quite independent of any party preferences any of us might have.

In point of fact, this voting choice must supersede any party preferences. As also the voting patterns of any truly worthy representative should also supersede party agendas (and that is one thing I look for, and I rarely find, if ever).

On the November 2008 ballot, I found only three names of incumbents I could justify voting for. Since then, I think I have found one more I can justify retaining.

But no one else !!!!!!!!!! Not one, of a plethora of office holders, candidates, or opponents. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” on this list, but, unless I know, I vote "no".

If everyone approached their civic duty voting in this way, we eventually would have largely-honest, largely-uncorrupted government. Please consider doing this yourself, and also passing along my recommendation to others, if it makes any sense to you.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

3 Solutions to the Somali Pirate Problem

3 Solutions to the Somali Pirate Problem 4-10-09

Once again, this problem receives some US media attention because this time it is an American ship.

(1) The oldest, least bureaucratically intrusive, and most cost-effective solution has been known for over 500 years: lightly-arm the merchant ships.

The Dutch were very successful at this, starting with the first of their “East Indiamen” in 1497. These fast, lightly-armed cargo vessels had less trouble with piracy, unlike the ships of the other nations.

Today, the chief impediment to arming cargo ships is reported by authorities at the US Merchant Marine Academy to be international maritime law. Unarmed ships get through customs inspections faster.

Aw, come on, folks! Use common sense. It’s easier and cheaper to change that law slightly, than it is to ransom ships and crews.

(2) For ships not armed, my advice is don’t stop when the pirates approach. These Somali pirates, in small boats, are armed only with assault rifles and grenade launchers, so there is little risk of serious damage to any full-size ship.

Think about it: small boat next to big ship. For the pirates to get on the ship’s deck some 30 to 100 feet above the water, two things must happen: (1) the ship must stop, and (2) the ship must drop a ladder or open a door in the hull. So, don’t!

But, better yet, what if all the ships were armed and shot back, sinking the bad guys more often than not? Pretty soon, the pirates would be doing something else for a living.

(3) The other solution is more bureaucratically intrusive and less cost-effective. It is a successful technique employed in both world wars: the escorted convoy.

If the cargo ships travelled in convoys accompanied by warship escorts, these pirates would never attack. But, there is the regimentation and inconvenience of sailing only to convoy schedules.

Plus, there is the expense of providing lots of naval escorts, when there are not that many warships in all the navies of the world, as compared to all the cargo ships. International shipping in convoys will be slower, and lower volume.

So, arming the cargo ships is still the better solution, just as it was 500 years ago.

The best use of military resources is to attack pirate strongholds on land, when that is deemed appropriate. One must consider the balance between killing the bad guys and killing innocent bystanders when staging such attacks.

The US Navy warship watching the current drama off Somalia was named for a veteran of the Barbary Pirate wars and hero of the war of 1812: William Bainbridge. A place name from the Barbary Pirate wars, Tripoli, is commemorated in the US Marine Corps hymn.

That retrospective just goes to prove that history really does repeat itself, especially if one does not learn from it.

Arm the damn ships!