In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


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

So 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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The Sad and Accurate History of Alice Nutter, Catholic

Many of you have, of late, been enjoying the video adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch — as well you should, it’s quite an enjoyable romp with wonderful performances by stars Michael Sheen, David Tennant, and Adria Arjona (among others).

What you might not know however (though the authors certainly did) is the link between the fanciful Agnes Nutter and the real life witch trials of 16th century Lancashire, in particular the Pendle Witch trials, which echo damningly even today.

This was a generation after the reformation, and England was ruled by the young James the First, who during his upbringing had been indoctrinated (brainwashed, actually) against the Catholics with wild stories of witchcraft and demons.

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How to Wash The Dishes

We now have a working dishwasher again. Over the last few weeks, we’d noticed is just wasn’t cleaning, and the usual remedied (cleaning the filter and using a hard water remedy) didn’t help. Over the weekend, if simply didn’t work at all.
But, a dishwasher only has a few parts, principally inlet valve, float switch, pump, and controller. The controller seemed to be working, the the inlet valve is by far the most frequent part to fail. There are technical ways to test it–but realistically, the easiest thing is to turn on the machine and give is a few minutes to see if the tub filled. It didn’t—and seemed to hum more loudly than it ought to—and manually filling the tub causes the float switch to float and “clickity click” its indication of health. Closing the door and pressing start caused the machine to run normally–so the controller and pump are good. Obviously, a bad inlet valve.
So….call the repairman, right? Wrong. A quick search found a Youtube video showing how to replace the valve:
1. Kill the power and water.
2. Remove the front kick plate.
3. Remove a screw securing the valve from the front of the washer base.
4. Remove the electrical connection.
5. Release a spring clamp and inlet hose.
6. Remove the supply hose (just like those for the sink).
7. Reverse steps 1-6 to install a replacement.
The old valve might be defective of just blocked with scale, but a new one cost $21 on Amazon and was delivered in two days. So when I got home tonight, I spent half and hour on steps 1-6 and 6-1 and washed a load of dished. Easy peasy.
And may your every repair go as smoothly. This Internet thing’s a keeper don’t ya think? Have you repaired anything lately?

Today, scientists working under the National Science Foundation reported using light from nine radio-telescopes spaces around the world to record the first (radio) image of a black hole:

I understand the physics involved just well enough to tell you that this view of the black hole at core of galaxy Messier 87 is neither head-on now edge-on, that is, we are looking at the accretion disk at a slight angle, the the bright rings are actually light from the plane of the accretion disk folded up into a plane fairly close to facing us, with the upper, darker half dimmed by gravitational lensing. Or I could be wrong. I trust the 200 scientists who worked for five years to create this image get a lot more out of it than I do.

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Back In The Saddle Again

Today, March 3rd, 2019, everything changed. It might be just another spring day wherever you are, but this is the day the space age got back on track.

Bold statement? Allow me to back it up.

Nearly everything most people alive today think about NASA is based on the Apollo program and NASA’s high-profile attempts to keep the manned space program going through the Congressional withdrawal from its economic aftermath. The moon landings were a wondrous achievement and the Space Shuttle accomplished much, but the fact is, NASA was not founded to go to the moon or run an expensive orbiter program for three decades. NASA was created to continue The N.A.C.A.’s work of fostering and promoting American industry–to continue its legacy of aeronautical research and advancement into the space age.

While the Apollo program and Space Shuttle contributed to this goal, they were also expensive (though necessary) distractions from the entrepreneurial thinking needed to get from “One Giant Leap” to meaningful movement beyond the Earth. But now, after two decades of competitions patterned somewhat after the aeronautical Guggenheim prizes of the 1920s and 30s and administered by NASA, space entrepreneurship is booming.

In the past, firms bid on military style cost-plus contracts to sell NASA the boosters it needed. Now, Space-X (and others) are developing their own boosters with NASA as collaborator and customer for for-profit launch services. It can hardly be a surprise then, that Space-X is “boldly going” to innovate and cut costs. The cheaper they fly, the more they bank.

And so, this morning, the first privately owned crew launch system in the history of Earth docked with the ISS, without berthing by robotic arm and without manual intervention by rocket jock astronauts. It was only a test flight, but it was far more than a step toward America’s return to space following the retirement of the shuttle. It’s a sea change. It’s the beginning of space, the industrial marketplace.

It changes everything.

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For more on this topic, see my article “Do We Still Need NASA?” coming soon to Analog Science Fiction & Fact.

The Many Faces Of Radiation

“Radiation” is a catch-all term leftover from the late nineteenth century, before we knew much about physics. It is applied equally to various types of nuclear emissions and also to electromagnetic emissions, but these are not all the same.

Electromagnetic radiation includes a wide spectrum of wavelength, each with a different energy.


At one end of the spectrum are microwaves (harmless unless used in high enough intensity to heat you up) and radio (pretty much completely harmless). At the other end of the spectrum are X-rays and gamma rays, which contain enough energy per photon to break a chemical bond, and therefore potentially cause cancer or simply cell death. In the middle lies UV light, the shortest of which just barely has enough energy to influence chemical processes in living things enough to cause cell damage or cancer.

But, living things are not defenseless, and exposures are not magic death cooties. So while excessive exposure to UV light might cause sunburn and raise your cancer risk, you actually need a certain amount of exposure to maintain healthy vitamin-D and cholesterol levels, and an occasional x-ray is a valuable diagnostic tool.

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Where is NASA’s Moon Footage?

I am often asked about the claim that NASA lost the original recordings of video shot during the moon landing. This idea is frequently breathed new life either my moon hoax conspiracultists suggesting it as proof that we never went, or by those wishing to argue that government can’t get anything right.

It’s true, too–sort of. The original master recordings of the TV footage shot on the moon are lost, as far as is known. But surprise, surprise, the actual facts don’t remotely support either either argument.

In the mid 1960’s when we were preparing for the moon landings, most TV cameras weighed about 300 pounds (plus associated equipment). Early portable cameras might weigh 80, and require a backpack for power and electronics, and drew three or four hundred watts.

Mind you, this was not to record anything, this was just to take the picture and radio it back to the station for live broadcast.
These cameras were far too heavy, and used far too much power for NASA, which had already designed the spacecraft systems and simply didn’t have room or power to transmit TV back to Earth at the normal 525 lines of resolution and 30 (interlaced) frames per second used in the US.

So NASA contracted with RCA and Westinghouse to design cameras more suitable with the space program. They ended up with several, each based on brand new and clever but cutting edge technology. These “Apollo TV Cameras” weighed in at under 8 pounds and seven watts, absolutely remarkable for the day, but they captured a 320 line picture at only 10 frames per second, and sent it back to Earth as raw, analog data.

On Earth, that data could only be decoded on a dedicated machine, built by Westinghouse, and the technology did not yet exist to convert and analog TV signal from one format to another, so it could not be converted to the NTSC standard used in America, much less to any of the other hundreds of broadcast standards in use around the world.
To get around this, RCA built a special console in which the Apollo TV Camera signal was displayed on a specially made, slow phosphor screen inside a dark housing, where a standard TK-22 camera filmed in using the NTSC standard.

This was a cool machine for the time. Among other things, it had an early hard disk used to store analog video frames in real time, and it had a special circuit to help stretch those frames to fit the NTSC standard—but effectively reducing the 320 line image to 262.5 lines!
That was considered okay though, because that was comparable to the old kinescope system used to archive TV on film, so it was considered good enough.
The signal was recorded twice. The raw, unprocessed signal was recorded along with all the other spacecraft telemetry and DCE messages straight from the antenna. The NTSC signal was recorded on a stock Ampex VR-660B video recorder.
Both these measures were safeguards against failure of the microwave circuit back to Houston. Neither was considered of value once the footage aired. People just didn’t think that way back then. TV was for real time. Film was for journalism.
Videotaping was still in its infancy and was not widely available. It was used mostly to save prerecorded programming until it’s schedules air times (in different time zones) and until mid-season reruns. Then it was usually written over, because the tapes were very expensive, and there was no way to compress the data. Keep in mind, there are probably a hundred homes in my neighborhood that contain more stored video than all the vaults of all the networks in the world in 1969, and at much higher resolution.
Years later, some of the operators who had worked at the Deep Space Network stations saw how ratty the archival network footage was and started thinking about what they’d seen on their monitors at the time. They realized the the original, 320 line data was recorded on tape—not on video tape but on the raw data tapes, before going through the machine and before all the subsequent interference. But by then, the Apollo program was over, the equipment was obsolete, and archived data had been moved and moved again over the years.
If we had those data tapes today, we could recover the 320 line video broadcast from the moon, and it would look something like this photograph taken of the converter screen at the time:

That would be cool, even though the cameras had a host of faults that introduced ghosting and artifacts even before the signal left the camera. That data might still be in a warehouse, or it might be in the garage of some technician who “saved it” and then died before telling anyone about it. Or it might be lost.
If I recall correctly, NASA closed the data analysis office that processed Apollo telemetry data years ago, but volunteers saved the necessary equipment to read the old tapes. In fact, a paper was just released announcing that this effort recovered a critical section of previously lost data from the Apollo Lunar Science Experiments left operating on the moon until the mid-1970s. And that’s awesome—but it’s also very possible that that data might have been written over the older data from the landings.

So yeah, NASA recorded over or lost master tapes of an historic event that had done the job they were capture for and were recorded in a bespoke format that could only be read by antiquated, one-off machinery. Anyone who’s ever worked in a an actual government office can tell you stories of similar bureaucratic penny pinching, but yeah, in this age of nearly free, nearly perfect digital storage, you can be excused for finding this a tad short sighted.

But you know what else was short sighted? In the early 1960s, RCA Victor decided to demolish the Camden, New Jersey warehouse housing four floors of audio masters, many of them wax and metal disc recordings, test pressings, lacquer discs, matrix ledgers, and rehearsal recordings. Out of all of that, RCA saved a set of recordings by the (then famous) Enrico Caruso, but that was it. Shortly before the building came down, some collectors were permitted to enter the building and salvage whatever they could carry for their personal collections. Then the building was dynamited, bulldozed, pushed into the river and used as fill for a new pier.

And in 1973, when RCA decided to remaster its Rachmaninoff recordings to mark the composer’s centennial and capitalize on the growing high fidelity audio market, they had to buy them back from private collectors. Today, the wax and other obsolete recordings could be remastered using laser scanners and computer signal processing to produce reproductions far better than the originals–but they are landfill. Obviously, RCA never really had a record business, and you can’t trust private enterprise to make a buck, right?