Ham, the first primate astronaut

Then they led him out again, trying to get him near a mockup of a Mercury capsule, where the television networks had set up cameras and tremendous lights. The reporters and photographers surged forward again, yammering, yelling, exploding more camera lights, shoving, groaning, cursing—the usual yahoo sprawl, in short—and the animal came unglued again, ready to twist the noodle off anybody he could get his hands on. This was interpreted by the Gent [the news media] as a manifestation of Ham‘s natural fear upon laying eyes once again on the capsule, which looked precisely like the one that had propelled him into space and subjected him to such severe physical stresses.

The stresses the ape was reacting to were probably of quite another sort. Here he was, back in the compound where they had zapped him through his drills for a solid month. Just two years ago he had been captured in the jungles of Africa, separated from his mother, shipped in a cage to a goddamned desert in New Mexico, kept prisoner, prodded and shocked by a bunch of humans in white smocks, and here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes! Fuck this—

At some point in the madhouse scene out back of Hanger S, a photograph was taken in which Ham was either grinning or had on a grimace that looked like a grin in the picture. Naturally, this was the picture that went out over the wire services and was printed in newspapers throughout America. Such was the response of the happy chimpanzee to being the first ape in outer space … A fat happy grin… Such was the perfection with which the Proper Gent observed the proprieties.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 223–4 (italics and ellipses in original)

The space race as single combat

With the decline of archaic magic, the belief in single combat began to die out. The development of the modern, highly organized army and the concept of “total war” seemed to bury it forever. But then an extraordinary thing happened: the atomic bomb was invented, with the result that the concept of total war was nullified. The incalculable power of the A-bomb and the bombs that followed also encouraged the growth of a new form of superstition founded upon awe not of nature, as archaic magic had been, but of technology. During the Cold War period small-scale competitions again took on the magical aura of a “testing of fate,” of a fateful prediction of what would inevitably happen if total nuclear war did take place. This, of course, was precisely the impact of Sputnik I, launched around the earth by the Soviets’ mighty and mysterious Integral in October 1957. The “space race” became a fateful test and presage of the entire Cold War conflict between the “superpowers,” the Soviet Union and the United States. Surveys showed that people throughout the world looked upon the competition in launching space vehicles in that fashion, i.e., as a preliminary contest proving final and irresistible power to destroy. The ability to launch Sputniks dramatized the ability to launch nuclear warheads on ICBMs. But in these neo-superstitious times it came to dramatize much more than that. It dramatized the entire technological and intellectual capability of the two nations and the strength of the national wills and spirits. Hence … John McCormack rising in the House of Representatives to say that the United States faced “national extinction” if she did not overtake the Soviet Union in the space race.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 124–5 (ellipses in original)


Fighter pilots’ hazardous lifestyles

More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes. Fortunately, there was always some kindly soul up the chain to certify the papers “line of duty,” so that the widow could get a better break on the insurance. That was okay and only proper because somehow the system itself had long ago said Skol! and Quite right! to the military cycle of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving, as if there were no other way. Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 37 (italics in original)

End of the Cassini mission

After a 20-year mission, and to avoid any risk of contaminating Saturnian moons with microorganisms from Earth, the Cassini space probe was deliberately crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere today.

The science it has returned has been stimulating and the imagery spectacular. The watery moon Enceladus now joins Europa among the solar system’s most intriguing life-compatible bodies.

Mitchell on “Carbon Democracy”

A surprising oversight in Timothy Mitchell’s generally-insightful Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil is how he gives relatively little consideration to static versus mobile forms of fossil fuel consumption. He strongly emphasizes the production and transportation logistics of coal versus oil, but gives little consideration to special needs for fuels with high energy density (and sometimes low freezing points) in transport applications from cars and trucks to aircraft and rockets. People sometimes assume that oil demand and electricity production are more related than they really are, especially in jurisdictions where oil is mostly used as transport fuel and for heating (both areas where little electricity is generally used).

At a minimum, I think it’s important to give some special consideration to the needs of the aerospace and aviation industries, especially when pondering biofuel alternatives. Also, we need to try to project things like the deployment rate of electric ground vehicles in various applications, when trying to project how the forms of energy production and use in the future affect politics and low-carbon policy choices.

Juno’s orbital insertion

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft, designed to study Jupiter’s magnetic field to help us better understand the planet and solar system, will be burning its main engine to circularize its orbit around the gas giant later today:

At about 12:15 pm PDT today (3:15 p.m. EDT), mission controllers will transmit command product “ji4040” into deep space, to transition the solar-powered Juno spacecraft into autopilot. It will take nearly 48 minutes for the signal to cover the 534-million-mile (860-million-kilometer) distance between the Deep Space Network Antenna in Goldstone, California, to the Juno spacecraft. While sequence ji4040 is only one of four command products sent up to the spacecraft that day, it holds a special place in the hearts of the Juno mission team.

“Ji4040 contains the command that starts the Jupiter Orbit insertion sequence,” said Ed Hirst, mission manager of Juno from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “As soon as it initiates — which should be in less than a second — Juno will send us data that the command sequence has started.”

When the sequence kicks in, the spacecraft will begin running the software program tailored to carry the solar-powered, basketball court-sized spacecraft through the 35-minute burn that will place it in orbit around Jupiter.

The spacecraft has been on its way since August 2011 and will be just the second spacecraft to ever orbit our solar system’s largest planet. The first was Galileo, which orbited from 1995 to 2003.

GONAVY: The Language of Trident launches on television

From a number of perspectives, I find YouTube videos which include demonstrations of Trident D5 missile launches from American Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines highly interesting:

I find the first of the three clips (USS Nebraska) especially intriguing because of the highly stylized, almost theatrical language of the exchange between the bridge officers authenticating the emergency action message. In the second and third clips (USS Kentucky and USS Pennsylvania), the process is either simplified or not shown. The deliberateness of orders being given and then repeated back, with each action then being completed by a two-man team, seems demonstrative of a training culture and a concept of operations based around the two man rule. The way in which certain messages are broadcast on loudspeaker to the entire crew is also interesting from a security and system design perspective.

There is clearly a substantial recruiting angle to such ‘documentaries’, which helps explain why the navy would tolerate the bother and potential security risks associated. A related dimension is helping to justify the huge costs associated with a fleet of 18 multi-billion dollar submarines, each with 24 $37 million dollar missiles, each capable of carrying 12 nuclear warheads.

It also seems plausible that publicly demonstrating the functioning of such systems adds to their credibility in the eyes of potential adversaries.

The launch procedures above are interesting to contrast with those depicted for a British Vanguard-class boat (HMS Victorious) carrying the same missiles. The protocol of using a yellow stick to guard the launch code safe is an especially amusing British security strategy. This depiction, straight from the Royal Navy (HMS Vigilant), is more serious in tone, though it still lacks the drama of the American variations.