In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


An Everyday Science FAIL

Years ago, I read about a study that asked students a math question involving school bus capacity, to which most students answered “three and three quarters buses.” When asked if they thought that was a sensible answer, many responded that they thought they were being asked “school math” instead of “real world math.”

This highlighted a big problem in the way education is done in this country, and the problem isn’t restricted to math.Related image

Today, I watched a car explode, and I knew without shifting my backside from the seat exactly what thy owner had done to cause this yuletime catastrophe.

I was sitting in the drive-through at McDonald’s, having just ordered a hamburger after a quick trip to the store. I’d waited forever for the chance to order (no doubt, due to the car in question), but being literally sick and tired, and as there was a brilliant comedian on the radio, I didn’t mind. I pulled around and paid, rolled up the window, and heard a “Poofshwishshshshshshsh…”

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Living In Infamous Times

Today is December 7th, 2017. Seventy-six years ago today, forces of the empire of Japan unleashed a surprise attack on US Naval facilities at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 people, sinking eighteen ships, and dragging the US into the war. Despite the gross imbalance in political and economic power, Japanese planners saw the US as weak and its people irresolute, and they believed that if they struck us hard enough, we would roll over and give them what they wanted–dominion over Southeast Asia and the Southern Pacific.

The lesson from that was, that if you don’t want war, be visibly prepared to win one.

Also on this date, forty-five years ago, Britons started dying in droves as a killer smog built up through the third of what would prove to be five days of temperature inversion over the city of London. Fog is nothing new to London, but this fog was saturated with the sulfur-laden emissions, not only of automobiles and trains, but of a set of coal-fired power plants built inside the city limits by the post-war Churchill administration, mostly to appease business interests and project an image of post war England as stronger than it she was. Churchill dismissed the growing catastrophe as an act of god, even though his government has been warned this would eventually happen before the plants were built, in part using scientific data from similar events in America. In five days, though mortality statistics were suppressed at the time, 12,000 people died–five times the number killed at Pearl Harbor, and not only soldiers, but women, children, and the elderly.

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The Skinny on Our First Interstellar Visitor

In case you haven’t heard, the astronomy community is all atwitter over the first confirmed visitation from beyond our star system

No, we’re not talking aliens, not even the kind that look suspiciously like extras wearing costumes. No, Oumuamua as this visitor is called, is an oddly elongated asteroid currently whizzing through our solar system, having made its closest approach to the sun about two months ago.

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Flying by the Waist of Your Pants

There’s a scene in Ron Howard’s wonderful film, Apollo 13, when the crew is preparing to fire the LEM engine in space and Commander Lovell is Seen ensuring that his socked feet are firmly attached to the velco floor. That might well be authentic, but it leaves audiences with a mistaken notion of when flying the LEM was like during a landing.

Landings were dangerous because there was a big moon outside, just waiting to smash into you. The LEM had to maneuver, and the crew could be tossed around as it did so, just as they needed precision control. If something went wrong (as it did in Apollo 10) such an upset could elevate a minor problem into a crisis, but even under the best of circumstances, landings could be hard, and the last thing you wanted was for a suited astronaut to bang to into a bulkhead, breaking the suit or the LEM.

NASA needed a way to hold the astronauts down so they could focus on their jobs while giving them the mobility needed to move about the cabin as needed. It had to be light, it had to be reliable, and it had to be dead simple. Their solution? The Apollo LEM Crew Restraint System:


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A Scam To Watch Out For

Most SPAM emails are so transparent, so riddled with grammatical errors and unlikely usage, you wonder why anyone would fall for them. In fact, researchers have found this to be by design. Spammers are happy to have the alert and educated see through them–those are the people who make trouble.

So today, when this message arrived in my mailbox, it got my attention:

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Sale of Open Source Space!

My third Jim Baen Memorial finalist, Open Source Space, has sold to Analog Science Fiction & Fact. I guess now I can say I’m a regular.

OSS is the story of a girl who goes into space to retrieve Snoopy, the derelict ascent stage from Apollo 10, and maybe avert World War III.

Houston Under Water

A friend asked how much of Houston is experiencing flooding, so I thought a post might be warranted.

First, let me say that I am fortunate enough to have been relatively untouched by Hurricane Harvey. That’s partly because we did our research before buying a house here and partly because we are the direct beneficiaries of a $120 million flood abatement project along White Oak bayou–completed just as we moved here in 2004, paid for and coordinated by a Federal program that Mr. Trump has asked Congress to eliminate, and additionally, by deep neighborhood lakes that have inadvertently acted as flood abatement since our neighborhood was built in the 1990s. Largely, it’s because we got lucky, and at the point Saturday when the White Oak was at its highest, we caught a break–a six hour respite as the heaviest band of rain passed over to the east, giving our part of town a chance to recover. Others were not so lucky.

This information is condensed from government sources and the Washington Post, which has done an excellent job covering the storm.

The average annual rainfall in Houston is officially 59.5 inches. Since Friday, all parts of the city have received between 32 and 52.5 inches. The 52.5 inches is a new record for the continental US, and may be low, as the sensor station on Cedar Bayou failed at that point. That’s a lot of rain, over 9 trillion gallons, over 8 cubic miles of water.


Harvey dumped a year's worth of rain in three days.

Houston rainfall cumulative annual total (dark), cumulative annual record (light), and Harvey(blue).

The immediate impact of this was the utter shutdown of the city, from Tomball in the Northwest, to Galveston Bay in the southeast. The city was founded at the confluence of the White Oak and Buffalo Bayous. Roads, then interstate highways, grew up around them. It’s alarming to many, but actually quite logical, that the major surface roads that tie the city together now form part of the normal floodplain for these waterways. We’re used to it. If you work downtown and a storm rolls in, you go home early or risk getting stuck. That’s just Houston.

This is different. Service roads and underpasses all over the city flooded simultaneously. Pumps were overwhelmed. Both airports had to be shut down. Retaining walls collapsed into the Sam Houston Tollway, one of three loops that normally keep traffic flowing around the city even in times of crisis. Miles of these loops and the interstates and feeders that connect them went under water. The Addicks and Barker reservoirs, large flood control structures on the west side that protect downtown from catastrophic floods during hurricanes both filled to the top for the first time in history.

Buffalo? Bayou before and during the storm. Downtown before and after, looking toward University of Houston, just above the confluence of the White and Buffalo bayous.
Houston downtown theater district–with floodwater blocking route to I45 and I10.

West Sam Houston Tollway @ Main

Now the city is full of water, not because any levees broke (they didn’t) or because any government official screwed up failed to act (one can quibble, but both preparedness and response have been pretty good by normal American government standards). It just is what it is, and now the water–all eight cubic miles of it–has to make its way to the gulf.

So how much of the city is flooded? About 30 percent, including some of the city’s poorest, most densely populated areas. That’s 30 percent of a metropolitan area of 5.6 million people. There is currently no way to know what percentage of homes are actually flooded, or what percentage of those have more than a few inches.

That kind of detail makes a big difference. A little water in the front door, and you just replace the moldings. A few inches, and you might have to replace the lower part of the drywall. More than a couple of feet, and you may loose most of your personal property, in addition to having to gut and remodel. Over the next few days, the water will recede, except for certain areas like those around the reservoirs who officials say can expect to remain flooded until October. Yes, that’s right. It will take up to two months to draw the flood control structures back down to normal levels. It could be worse. At least it’s fresh water. And let us not forget, Rockport, to the South, was devastated. At least Houston’s homes and businesses are just wet, not destroyed.

How bad off is Houston? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Houstonians and our neighbors from across the state and across the nation are coming together in a way that must give hope to all but the most hardened, cynical heart.

As I write this, various agencies and organizations have set up well over 22 shelters, including the GRB Convention Center, the Toyota Center, and NRG Stadium, where over 10,000 evacuees were housed as of last night, as first responders, the #CajunNavy, and a Dunkirk style flotilla of good Samaritans continue to bring people in. Some of these people will be renters and the ill prepared, who simply didn’t feel comfortable waiting out the flood. Many, of course, and those who need a little help under the best of times. Some–and unknowable percentage at this point–will be homeowners who didn’t or couldn’t get insurance, and whose homes are submerged to the rafters. Last night, the news interviews a guy from Austin who drove here to help–and stopped to buy a boat along the way. Another guy described the ad-hoc cloud network by which the “Cajun Navy” dispatches rescuers. A third told of water do deep, he’d pass a deer taking refuge on a rooftop.




Our Future in Space

I often see people asking the question, why haven’t we gone back to the moon, sometimes accusingly, as if that somehow implies we never went at all. We went, and we’ve sought in the decades since never to engage in such a race again, largely because those in the position to fund such a race have seen the bill for the last one.

During the 1960’s the space program consumed 5% of the federal budget—competing with the expensive cancer of war in southeast Asia. It needn’t have been so, but the race to beat the USSR gave the moonshot the character of a wartime weapons procurement program—sufficient to do the job, but damn the expense. That was sort of the point. It gave the electorate new heroes to rally around and helped transition America’s post war industrial economy into a technological powerhouse. It also taught us how hard space flight really is—especially manned spaceflight—and in our national exuberance, made it seem even more expensive than it needed to be. We built the space flight equivalent of the SR-71 spy plane (mission capable, but expensive and custom made) where we needed a DC3 (mass produced but adaptable) and only knew how to actually build the Wright Flyer. Congress didn’t quite appreciate how much we were biting off.

The program did what it was hoped it would. Even as a controversial war and deteriorating race relations pulled America apart, Apollo bound us together, not just with each other, but with everyone else on the planet. One could arg

ue that this alone was worth the price of the program, but we did get a bit carried away. NASA had designed Apollo to meet Kennedy’s mandate, but they spent money on studies of follow on lunar bases, space stations, LEM-derived space freighters, and upgrades to Saturn that from an economic perspective, made as much sen

se as a fleet of disposable battleships. Meanwhile, the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office had developed and tested an atomic thermal rocket and was advocating to have it developed into an atomic third stage for the Saturn, to send man to Mars in the 1970’s.

Having seen the ballooning costs so far, Congress was horrified. We had already “won” as far as they were concerned, having gotten to the moon and back, and now we risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Everything else (including the science) was just more dollars and danger. This, I believe, left congress with a “bad aftertaste” that lasted well into the 1990s. Sure, they thought, NASA can do great things, but who can afford them? NASA negotiated a compromise. They traded their grandiose dreams for Skylab and the Shuttle, with the hopes that this would lead to and justify a later station, and from there…

In hindsight, it’s hard to see how NASA planners, faces with dwindling interest and funding in the 1960s, thought anything they could achieve in low Earth orbit would restore the interest and the funding of their gravy days in the lead up to Apollo 11. In retrospect, they might have done better to set themselves a vision much more humble, but in its own way just as lofty, as the moonshot: developing economical space flight technology. Alas, they were given what they asked for—the shuttle—morphed by committee into a sort of Swiss-Army Knife relaunchable space station that ultimately may have done as much to reinforce our national sense of sticker shock as to advance the final frontier.

So when subsequent presidents have sought to challenge NASA with bold new missions…the funding has never materialized. Partly that’s lack of political commitment. Partly, though, it’s because LBJ is gone. Kennedy proposed the moon landing, and ultimately Kennedy is the one who initiated international cooperation in space, but more than anyone else, Lyndon B. Johnson championed the moon landings. According to NASA insiders, it was LBJ who, when Kennedy was fishing for a win in space, told Kennedy to send a memo officially asking him—as vice president—for ideas. It was in response that he (LBJ) suggested the moon landing. And after Kennedy consulted with the experts, it was LBJ who strong-armed congress into writing the checks. It was said of LBJ, “Nobody wanted to say no to LBJ. He knew everyone on the hill, and he knew where all the bodies were buried.”

The Cold War was over, and we both won and lost. We won by using the power of capitalism to spend the hard line communists controlling the USSR under the table in history’s greatest economic drinking competition. We lost by failing utterly to help Russian moderates—who had known this was inevitable for decades—to transition their country into a strong, stable, nation with the same incentives to innovation, but also the same controls against corruption and excess we had come by through hard knocks.

The moon landings were arguably the greatest thing ever done for the wrong reasons. We, as a nation, did it right, even carrying along rovers and a geologist. Sure, Congress wanted to put a thumb in the eye of the Kremlin, but America, from Kennedy down to the people, saw that for the first time since humans first walked out under that glowing thing in the sky, we could dare to go there. So we did. That was the good part. The moon landings not only inspired the generations who participated, but every generation since. They also paid dividends that are far less visible but far more important than the oft-touted spin-offs like CFL lighting and the acceleration of microcomputer research.

The Apollo program required “rocket science” of over 1,500 companies throughout the US economy, from brassiere makers to foundries. The high-tolerance, high reliability engineering and manufacturing controls developed for and disseminated by the space program now inform all of manufacturing, from flat-pack furniture that goes together the first time and every time, to cars that don’t rattle and that can drive 150,000 miles without a tuneup, to pocket computers 10,000 times more powerful than those that went to the moon. The race was the bad part. It made everything far more expensive than it might have been. But…maybe that’s the way it had to be. Something else the space race did was illustrate with crystal clarity how, despite the creative capacity unleashed by free enterprise, despite the inefficiencies often inherent in centralized control, sometimes greatness requires both. At the moment, NASA seems to get that, and is embracing its role as a foil and champion of commercial innovators, even while working on the next great booster—beyond the reach of commercial interests.

The last thing we need is another space race. Let’s take our time. And this time, when we get there, when we press human feet against another world, let us stay.

Why Finland Can’t Go To The Moon

So, we’ve seen all the pix from Finland, where this year’s World Science Fiction Convention was held, but how many there, gathered to celebrate all that is scifi and fantasy with shiny new rocket ship Hugo trophies, that byinternational law, Finland is forbidden to go to launch such a rocket?

Title IV, Article 23 of the Treaty of Paris specifies that “Finland will neither make, manufacture, nor field aircraft designed to operate with a normal range in excess of 5,000 kilometers, nor shall it assign or second its personnel to aircraft so designed.”

This provision is designed to restrain Finland from operating long-range bombers, but it also restrains it from sending Finns to the Moon since the Moon is more than 5,000 km away and requires air transport to get there.

Finland will not violate the Treaty of Paris. The Russian Federation, as successor state to the Soviet Union, is legally permitted to enforce Finland’s treaty obligations through force of arms, and Finland takes these obligations seriously. So, no moon shot for the Finns.

Of course, individual Finns might travel to the Moon in the same way that individual Finns can fly on long-range commercial aircraft. However, “Finland” -as a state – cannot sent a craft to the moon through any means currently known to science.

Although….the atmosphere is arguably less than 5,000 km deep–what if they went straight up?

Fake, Fake, Fakity Fake

This here is what UFOlogists call, “The Wedge of Aiud.”

It was supposedly found near some mastodon bones in 1974 in Romania. Sure, I’ll buy that, however, this thing’s all over the Interwebicles under headlines like “Experts are studying mysterious aluminum object that could date back to 250,000 years” (it does not) or “Experts speculate aluminum artifact may be a part from a UFO” (experts in what, pray tell?) or “Romanian Artifact Defies LOGIC” (it does not, but gullibility does).

It’s an excavator tooth. One of those pointy dirty scoopy thingamaboobers on the bitey end of excavator buckets like this one:

These things are made in a metric crap ton of styles by companies all over the world, but when they found it, I’ll bet you a can of soup someone at the site knew the exact make and model of the excavator it came off of–because it’s the one he’d used to dig the hole.

But….but aluminiminimumum… Yeah….some of these “experts” even claim to have had the metal analyzed and found to contain mostly aluminum and copper and a handful of other traces—in otherwords, Duralumin 2000, the international standard alloy designation for this stuff going back quite a ways further than you might imagine

This is definitely an excavator tooth. The only mystery is, why does anyone, anywhere, pay any attention to anyone who days otherwise?



While we are at it, this is not a 400 million year old “Out of place artifact” as claimed by pseudoscientist wackadoos the world over. This, “The London Hammer” is an ordinary hammer,  dropped most likely in the late 19th century into a creek flowing through Ordovician strata in London Texas. Minerals dissolved out of the surrounding rocks concreted around the iron, as they always do around iron or steel objects when conditions are right. This conclusion is supported by the shells of modern freshwater clams caught up in the matrix. The nearby rocks are Ordovician, the hammer and the concretion are not.

Some rocks form very quickly, like the foundation of your house, for example. Cement is nothing but synthetic limestone and takes somewhat less than millions of years to form. There’s a reason, when mixed with aggregate, it’s called “concrete.”

Limestone concretion can form very quickly indeed around iron, which is why this can exist:

If you believe, as the wackadoos claim, that that stone is half a million years old, you might as well donate your brain to science now, it’s not doing you any good.

Reality is amazing. It needs no help from the gullible.