The oldest still-orbiting man-made object is Vanguard I. The first solar-powered satellite, it was launched in the wake of Sputnik to study orbital conditions. It continued to broadcast for seven years and still remains in a shallow elliptical orbit that barely dips near the rarefied upper atmosphere. Originally projected to remain aloft for two thousand years, it has since been determined that friction from the solar wind and other environmental factors will bring it down by around 2,198 if it doesn’t collide with something before then.
This of course brings up the specter of orbital trash that now blankets our world, but it’s also a testament to our achievement as a species. Petty as we are, it’s easy to let our conquests and vices define us, and it’s unsurprising that so many seek comfort in a metaphysical eden beyond the reach of our squabbles and pollution. But if we fall short of the civilized ideals we imagine to move the heavens, we can at least take pride in this: our race, and ours alone, has aspired to the ideal.
Of all the millions of species that have inhabited the good earth, only we have sent emissaries hurtling through the universe for no other reason than to understand it. Whatever comes, our legacy now is assured. Should we perish tomorrow and send each other to a hell of our own making, machines with names like Pioneer, Voyager, and Sojourner will remain, forever proclaiming the best of what we are, and by the very evidence of their existence, the message left close by to our first steps on another world: “WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.”
When we first moved to Houston, my daughters were still tykes. As we sat around the table in our new kitchen, I asked what they were thankful for. The eldest gave the expected answer to make any parent proud: her family and friends and her brand new school (which really was a new school–not just new to her).
My youngest looked up, and with an earnest gleam in her eye, said, “I’m thankful for bugs!”
This year, I’m thankful for family and heath and for friendships new and old. I’m thankful for the scientific foundation behind our modern understanding of the world–an understanding that gives us greater responsibility, but far greater opportunity than ever before. And yes, creepy though they may be, for their integral role in our little world, I’m thankful for bugs too.
What are you thankful for?
It is a currently fashionable political truism that government is always less efficient and more prone to corruption than the free market and that the “military industrial complex” is the least efficient and most corrupt of all government domains. The truth is somewhat more nuanced.
Consider the story of the X-1, the experimental rocketplane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. During World War II, it became obvious that high speed flight posed fundamentally new challenges that directly threatened the advancement of American commercial and military aircraft design. NACA, (forerunner of NASA) a civilian government agency created to promote and advance American aeronautical development, had joined forces with the Army Air Forces Materiel Command to study a variety of aeronautical engineering problems of urgent importance to the war effort. In 1941, NACA researcher John Stack recommended building an oversrength, over-powered research aircraft for exploring flight in the unstable zone near the speed of sound. Eventually, the brass agreed, and in 1943, Bell and McDonald were invited to submit proposals (under a limited bidder program that led to much graft during the war).
Here, NACA started to part ways with the Army. NACA wanted a subsonic, jet-powered aircraft that could take off from the ground. The Army wanted a rocketplane designed to break the sound barrier. In the end, Bell was given the contract to build three experimental rocket planes, but by the time they were ready, the Army had decided to adopt the air-launch technique proposed by McDonald. Testing began in Florida, but the Army grew impatient with NACA’s conservative test schedule and with the hefty bonuses demanded by it’s civilian pilots.
With the cold war looming, the Army ordered the program moved to Muroc Army Air Field and its dry lake bed. Army test pilot Chuck Yeager was picked to fly the X-1 because he was responsible and a superlative pilot, but also because as a military flyer, he was used to taking justified risks for Army pay. Yeager’s broken ribs have become legend, and it likely came as no surprise to his superiors that he would pull such a stunt—or that he would not have, had it jeopardized the mission.
Yeager and his test engineer cooked up the idea of using the X-1′s electrically adjustable vertical stabilizer to maintain control near the speed of sound. It later turned out that George Welch, a civilian pilot working for North American Aviation, had done the same thing a week earlier during a test dive in the F-86 Sabre, but neither North American nor Bell had come up with this innovation. They both were copying features of the German ME-262 rocket fighter, courtesy of military intelligence.
So, in the end, American post war air supremacy derived neither from free market inventiveness nor from government bureaucracy, but from the wartime lessons of a vanquished enemy. The ME-262 was the product of a large military development effort commenced before the war, but ironically, the thin wings that helped make it the speed demon of the war were not entirely German. Luftwaffe engineers stumbled onto the swept wing in an attempt to balance out a heavier than expected engine, but their airfoil cross sections had been developed in America by NACA in the 1930s.
Incidentally, if you are interested in muscle cars, you have seen another innovation of the NACA/AAFMC collaboration from which American business has profited lo these 70 years: the NACA duct. This recessed, Hershey’s Kiss-shaped duct was developed to draw cooling air through the skin of an aircraft without disrupting laminar flow and increasing drag. Because it was developed by the government, hot rodders from the ’50s on have been free to use it to feed their turbo chargers and blowers without paying any license to anyone.
Power, as George Orwell warns us, may corrupt, but it matters little whether the hands that wield it steer government or company cars. Neither it seems, does this dictate to the extent some imagine, the productivity of the human mind.
Okay, okay, I admit it. I overdid the treadmill a tad and ended up with what seems to be a relatively minor sprain that requires something approaching infinite time to heal. Or maybe it just feels that way.
But no matter. I’ll be back in ship shape soon enough, and in the meantime, I’ve finished what I think is a rather smashing new short story, but that’s not what I want to tell you about today. This is, because it’s so very awesome:
A (presumably waifish) young lady slipped on a Japanese train platform and became wedged in the narrow gap between the train and the platform. A station official warned the conductor not to depart and called over the PA, asking everyone to push on the 35-ton train car. They pushed hard enough to shift the car on its shocks, widening the gap enough for the woman to be pulled to safety. Why do I find this so wonderful? I don’t know. Perhaps because because in the aftermath, this “collective superman” gave itself a round of applause.
I have been somewhat lukewarm on Columbus day since I learned as a child, that the man had–at best–been rather embarrassingly lost. But the truth is, Columbus was not merely lost and not merely the unwitting instrument in the start of the decline of the native peoples. He was a butcher, a sex trafficker, and a slave trader. We know this because he have his own journals. He was a brutal bastard, and he is only celebrated in this country because in 1930 a white catholic civic organization petitioned the president to make it so.
This needs to be corrected. I don’t go in for the historical revisionism that is so rampant today, but I do support setting the record straight and correcting our collective errors. Columbus does not warrant celebration, but Bartolome de las Cases does. He was the first priest ordained in the Americas and was so disgusted by what he witnessed that he gave up his land and slaves and devoted the next fifty years to defending human rights.
bartolome de las Casas
So, here in the US, we have the best medical care in the world, eh?
I go to my GP–who refers me for a simple x-ray. Two days to get the (digital) x-ray and he can’t tell anything, so he refers me to a specialist. He doesn’t forward the (digital) x-rays, though, so they x-ray me again—before she examines me and determines it’s likely a navicular stress fracture and they often won’t show up in x-rays. If it is broken, it needs a cast and crutches. So she refers me for an MRI, but they can’t take me for two weeks and then another 3-5 five days to deliver the (digital) results–a third of the time it takes a bone to heal! I argue, and they fit me in five days earlier. Swell.
I call the specialist back and talk to her PA and he sends me back to the same place that took the original x-rays for the GP. They can squeeze me in Tuesday, so with luck, and these highly-paid medicoes don’t know how to FTP a file, maybe I’ll get a diagnosis in a week. Maybe then the specialist will prescribe the cast and crutches that are clearly needed in any event. With my luck, the MRI will turn up something else in the ankle and it’ll take another week of testing.
You know, in Japan, an MRI costs $160 and they have twice the number of machines per capita that we have. I miss the Air Force. I miss socialized medicine. I miss waiting for hours in a cheap cinder block room with vinyl chairs and the smell of floor wax—and leaving the building with tests complete, medicine in hand, and crutches in play. They weren’t perfect, but they were cheap and effective and for most routine care, superior in many ways to the Roles Royce waiting rooms my exorbitant premiums subsidize today.
Meanwhile, I bought my own crutches and put on the walking cast my wife used last year.
Video Posted on
In Houston, the original Foley’s department store was built in 1947 and operated continually until Macy’s purchased the chain and realized the block of prime downtown real estate is far more valuable as land than for selling ties. Sunday, they blew it up.
More to the point, they imploded it. From my office a block away, we watched demolition workers preparing for a week before we set up a timed camera to capture this video. A trench was cut to isolate the structure from the surrounding sidewalk. Plywood was erected to protect neighboring offices. The glass roof was removed from the train stop. Holes we cut all over the building and threaded with steel cables to help control the implosion.
When you watch the video, note that you can hear–but cannot see–a number of explosions. That’s because the explosives are cutting through the infrastructure–not the exterior surfaces. Once the building has been undermined, it crumples inward. This is how imposion is done.
It continues to amaze me that people can watch the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and think they are watching a controlled implosion. No. When the towers fell, the outer walls buckled irregularly. The outer walls fell ahead of the core. The first ten stories or so of the core remained more or less intact afterward (and a company of firemen emerged from the top of the rubble pile). This is all the exact opposite of implosion. This is what can lead to a building toppling over into its neighbors (which is just what the terrorists hoped for). The number of charges involved simply could not have been installed without a major and conspicuous effort. It didn’t happen. Its preposterous.
Enjoy the video. It’s science for the win, and if that’s not entertaining enough for you, then please, stay away from the conspiracy sites and wait for my novels. Even they are more plausible than some of this stuff.