In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


How Old is Earth?

The Earth solidified 4.54 billion years ago, plus or minus 1%. That’s a fact, and if your belief is not aligned to this fact, then you are what we call “wrong.”

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How The Moon Was Won

In eight short Cold War years, the USA went from second fiddle in space to The Nation That Put Man On The Moon. How?

The Americans were smart, loved their country, and had good German rocket scientists. The Soviets were smart, loved their country, and had good German rocket scientists. So what happened?

Part of it is simply that a big part of World War II was fought on Soviet soil and a big part with American supplies and arms. So while Soviet industrial infrastructure, already in poor shape for historical and political reasons, was decimated by the war, America’s was bolstered and increased.

But that aside, the Soviets made some impressive first steps, and were clearly ahead of US efforts at least up through the first few manned flights. But when it came to the moon landing, the US, bastion of capitalism and private enterprise that it is, committed itself to a single, centrally-controlled program to reach the moon. The Soviets, communists and socialists who lived and died by a centrally controlled economy, fought internally over who would do what. Weird, huh?

Paradoxically, the US beat the Soviets by launching a bigger, more coherent government program than the Soviets (who one would think would have been the preeminent leaders in big government programs).

Korolev only got funding to launch Satellites and men into space because it proved to the world they could deliver atomic bombs. But he had to have his engineers build roads and sewage treatment plants before he could do it, and like Von Braun during the earliest years of the US space program, he had to fight politics to get resources over other design bureaus.

We (the US) let pride, internal competition and, frankly, a failure of vision, cost us getting the first man in space, but made up for it by assembling the full might of our economy behind a single purpose. The Soviets made early inroads through bold action, genius, and personal initiative, but while Khrushchev was quick to make propaganda hay out of these achievements, he simply could not devote the kind of resources to a moon landing that the US could.

And because Kennedy publicly committed the nation, we all rallied to the cause. MIT designed the computers. Brassiere makers worked with industrial controls experts to build the Apollo space suit. Aerospace engineers called in surf board makers for help making cryogenic tanks.

The Soviets were late to commit to a moon landing, then they tried to do it in secret so they could pretend it never happened if it didn’t work out (which it didn’t, and they did for a long time). We (the US) had started working on the F1 engine in 1955 when we (and the Soviets) foresaw the need for giant rockets to deliver giant bombs. Although that work was abandoned as bombs quickly got smaller, it was an ace in our sleeve for the moon landing.

The Soviets, on the other hand, had addressed the same problem by clustering smaller rocket engines, and had stuck to technologically simpler hypergolic propellants. That put them a decade behind in building an engine suitable for a moon shot.

In the end, they turned to a jet engine maker to design a new big rocket engine, and he designed one so revolutionary, its principles have only become mainstream in the last decade. But you really can’t skip ahead in rocket science, and boldness and ingenuity had taken the USSR as far as it could.

So this

turned into a smoking hole. Then did it again. And again. Until it was chopped up and turned into storage buildings. Even had the N1 been a success, it could only lift 2/3 the payload of a Saturn V, or send half the payload to the moon. The most ambitious of Soviet moon plans (and there were several) had one man landing alone with minimal equipment. Apollo was designed to build moon bases, and could have, too, had the price tag not been so high.

It would be unfair to say that communism lost the USSR the space race, though the inherent inefficiency of centrally planned economics certainly handicapped its efforts to recover from the ravages of the war and Stalin’s purges. But ironically, it was America’s ability to marshal its vast economic and technical infrastructure to a common, centrally-planned goal that won the moon.

On the other hand, it was that very central control and the rush to the moon that ballooned the cost of the Apollo program and led us to abandon a perfectly good space exploration system in favor of a classic example of American overdesign (the Shuttle, no offense), thirty years of bureaucratic stagnation, and the loss of two orbiters and their crews.

Meanwhile, the Russians still make the Soyuz, and until very recently, could put a pound into orbit cheaper than anyone.

Stalin and Hitler determined the space race as surely as President Kennedy. But Kennedy figured out something we can still benefit from to this day. For all their differences, our two great nations are greater still when we work together.

Meanwhile, the whole episode illustrated something we should all keep in mind in the new millennium: Neither approach to government works very well when taken too far to extremes.

If you like space, you might enjoy my free award-winning scifi sampler.

Goodbye D.C. Goodbye Dorothy.

I will never get a change to tell D.C. Fontana what she meant to me as a little boy growing up in turbulent times, or as a grown man tempted by the writing bug. Dorothy, who wrote under the byline “D.C.” because the world isn’t what it ought to be, has died at the age of 80.

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I just went to get cough medicine for my dog. Dogs take the same cough medicine as we do, guafinesin as an antitussant to loosen up the phlegm and dextromethorphan as a suppressant so they can rest without coughing up a lung. They can take human meds here as long as it’s carefully dosed using liquid medicine in a syringe.
No problem, only I had to go to three stores to find it in liquid form, because the first only sells cough syrup with acetaminophen (Tylenol) in it, and mixing meds like that is never a good idea, especially liver toxic meds when trying to dose a dog. Then the second store had the same, but also a bunch of baby cough syrup containing homeopathic “medicine”—-why is this still a thing?
Listen to me. THERE. ARE. NO. HOMEOPATHIC MEDICINES. There are only medicines–chemicals shown to have a particular biochemical effect–and “snake-oil” anything else pretending to be medicine.
“Homeopathic medicine” is distilled water. Period. Sometimes it’s mixed with real, actual medicine to avoid lawsuits. Sometimes it’s soaked into a pill of sugar or filler to match the form factor of actual real medicine. Always, it’s just distilled water–born of a mistaken guess from before the dawn of chemistry and an industry of quakery that JUST WILL NOT DIE. These cough syrups for babies are syrup–concentrated sugar water. They don’t even put real, actual medicine in the bottle as an “inactive” ingredient as these quacks often do, because babies can’t complain that the crap ain’t working.
Only here’s the thing. If you need an antitussant and drink sugar water instead, you can get pneumonia and die. I’ve had pneumonia, and guafinesin is a big part of what saved me. I know whence I speak.
Now far be it from me to stop people who can’t be bothered learning science or history from enriching the homeopaths and denying themselves and their young the medicines they need. But my dog has a cough–and you’re in my way. Stop buying this shit.
And please, don’t even bother commenting how homeopathy is real and your daddy’s a grand master homeopathic mixologist or it cured you aunt Sadie’s hemeroids or whatever. I don’t want to hear it. If you believe in homeopathy, you’re wrong. Period. Now you have a choice: you can continue being wrong, or you can learn and grow wiser.

Have Spacesuit, Will Jazzercise

Last week, NASA announced the new spacesuit for it’s Artemis program. The suit, which actually has been in the works in various forms for many years, is called the xEMU, or “Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit.”

The suit is an evolution beyond the current Enhanced EMU used on the ISS in much the same way the EMU was an evolution beyond the A7L used during Apollo.

Much about the suit is familiar, and much falls short of what NASA would like, but as it often the case with NASA hardware, it’s not bad and it will definitely work.

Like the EMU, the xEMU used a rigid upper torso unit and comes in sized components to fit many astronauts. Unlike the EMU, the limbs are also rigid and move using angles bearings, like the joints in HVAC ducts, only much smoother.

In additon, the xEMU:

  • Weighs less than the current Enhanced EMU.
  • Supports a wider range of motion, allowing astronauts to reach over their heads and bend down and touch the ground.
  • Allows much easier entry through a hatch in the back of the rigid upper torso unit. The hatch is also the life support pack. This design is easily adapted to a suit port, in which the suit stays outside all the time, and docks to the side of the habitat for ingress and egress, radically reducing the amount of dust tracked inside.
  • Allows the astronaut to step in an immediately start working in a pure oxygen atmosphere at 8 psi, high enough to eliminate danger of the bend when coming from a higher pressure nitrogen oxygen habitat atmosphere. The suit then lowers the pressure to 3 psi gradually, allowing the astronaut to slowly shed the nitrogen dissolved in their tissues without needing the pre-breathe oxygen before their EVA.
  • Audio communication is through sophisticated microphones mounted inside the helmet, and similar to those used for headset-free speech recognition, so there is no need for the astronaut to wear a “snoopy cap.”
  • The emergency oxygen supply is filled to the same 3,000 psi as the primary instead of the 6,000 psi used in the A7L OPS carried on Apollo missions, which made it impossible to recharge the OPS in space. It also made it more likely that the OPS would explode.
  • Like the Enhanced EMU, the xEMU is modular to make it easy to size to different astronauts.
  • The CO2 scubber in the xPLSS life support pack is regenerative, and can essentially function as long as it has power with no need to replace consumable lithium hydroxide canisters.
  • In an emergency, keep the occupant alive for up to six days. Yeah…think about that for a moment.


The Umpeen-Millionth Way You Know We Really Went to the Moon

Moon hoax conspiracultists are an odd bunch. They invest endless energies making and parroting Internet claims about complex topics they don’t understand, but none at all investigating the actual world they live in.

A case in point is the fairly recent claim that images like this “prove the hoax” by showing “film crew credits for those filming the Apollo missions”:

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Hell and High Water

In Houston, we have a saying that every citizen is expected to know: “real chili has no beans.” But we have another saying that’s more germane to the topic at hand, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” We see it on the traffic signs all around town, and every time there’s a major storm, we see the results when our fellow citizens fail to heed this simple wisdom: don’t try to drive through high water. Every time, vehicles are totaled by the hundreds, motorists are stranded or have to be rescued, and all to often, people die–tragically yes, but as we are all quick to add, also needlessly, foolishly, presentably.

Except that isn’t always true. Not at all, in fact.

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How Did We Know We Needed Spacesuits?

When early rocket pioneers started strapping volunteers to missiles, how did they know those volunteers would need spacesuits? Of course, in both the Soviet Union and the US, animals subject we tested first, but in fact, we already had aircraft flying almost to the edge of space before that–and aircraft flew higher than humans can survive even during World War II. How did we prepare for this environment? How did we know we needed to?

Well in fact, people had been flying in balloons since the 18th century, and some later balloon flights led to deaths. But long before this, in 1644, Torricelli described the first mercury barometer, writing “We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of the element air.”

Torricelli and his mentor Galileo knew full well that we live on a spherical planet, but Galileo gave an erroneous explanation for the difficulties in using the suction pump to draw water up a well even though Aristotle had known that air has weight.

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How to Stay Safe in a Lift


A man was tragically killed this week in Manhattan, trying to climb out of a malfunctioning elevator. Tragically, because what he did was very stupid. Understandable, but stupid. I’m writing this to make sure you know better.

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And Now For Something Completely Different

feetSo I built a couch this week–one of those Home Reserve sectionals where all the parts are made on a CNC router and you have to put them together jig-saw style. I’ve never been a fan of “flat-pack” furniture, but with advancing technology, it’s lost most of the deserved stigma it once had.

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