A broad-ranging talk with James Burke

As part of promoting a new Connections series on Curiosity Stream launching on Nov. 9, I got the chance to interview historian of science and technology, science communicator, and series host James Burke:

The more interview-intensive part begins at 3:10.

Satellite to satellite espionage and warfare

One inescapable but confounding element of trying to understand politics, international relations, and history up to the present day is that we don’t have access to what governments are doing in secret. We will need to re-write the history of these times decades from now, if circumstances and freedom of information laws permit historians to learn about the skullduggery of this era.

One potentially important example is happening now in space. Satellites have become crucial to everything from time synchronization for high precision activities to navigation and communication. They also can’t really be hidden. Perhaps there are satellites with optical stealth that are hardly or never visible, but even top secret spy satellites of the conventional design can have their orbits determined by civilians with stopwatches and binoculars.

That is why we know that Russia, among others, has been experimenting with satellites that approach others and can potentially disrupt or destroy them, or monitor their activity. An article on China’s program includes the intriguing phrasing: “non-cooperative robotic rendezvous” between spacecraft. Russia’s Cosmos 2542 is known to have approached USA 245: an American spy satellite believed to be one of the largest things in space.

One can only speculate on how such capabilities are influencing world politics and the unfolding of events.

The JWST is in orbit

In what may be the rocket-launched science story of the decade, the James Webb Space Telescope launched from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana early Christmas morning Toronto time with me and many other science nerds watching the feed with mingled excitement and fear.

The process from here is remarkable both in terms of orbital trajectory and spacecraft deployment. This Scott Manley video shows the unusual position in space the JWST will occupy and the engineering and science reasons for it. This animation shows the planned deployment sequence for the spacecraft, which had to be folded to be housed in an aerodynamic fairing to push up through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Secrecy and safety in complex technological systems

In Rhodes’ energy history I came across an interesting parallel with the 1988 STS-27 and 2003 STS-107 space shuttle missions, in which the national security payload and secrecy in the first mission may have prevented lessons from being learned which might have helped avert the subsequent disaster. Specifically, the STS-27 mission was launching a classified satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and as a result they were only able to send low-quality encrypted images of the damage which had been sustained on launch to the shuttle’s thermal protective tiles. Since the seven crew members of STS-107 died because the shuttle broke up during re-entry due to a debris impact on the shuttle’s protective surfaces on launch, conceivably a fuller reckoning of STS-27 might have led to better procedures to identify and assess damage and to develop alternatives for shuttle crews in orbit in a vehicle that has sustained damage that might prevent safe re-entry.

Rhodes describes Belorussian leader and nuclear physicist Stanislav Shushkevich’s analysis of the Chernobyl disaster:

By Shushkevich’s reckoning, the Chernobyl accident was a failure of governance, not of technology. Had the Soviet Union’s nuclear power plants not been dual use, designed for producing military plutonium as well as civilian power and therefore secret, problems with one reactor might have been shared with managers at other reactor stations, leading to safety improvements such as those introduced into US reactors after the accident at Three Mile Island and the Japanese reactors after Fukushima.

Rhodes, Richard. Energy: A Human History. Simon & Schuster, 2018. p. 335

This seems like a promising parallel to draw in a screenplay about the STS-27 and STS-107 missions.

Waiting for my Lego shuttle

In part because of housing uncertainty — and mindful of George Monbiot’s excellent advice about true freedom arising from low living expenses “If you can live on five thousand pounds a year, you are six times as secure as someone who needs thirty thousand to get by” — I have been avoiding and minimizing taking on new physical possessions.

Nonetheless, with my interest in space and the Space Shuttle program specifically, I could not resist ordering Lego’s new Space Shuttle Discovery and Hubble Space Telescope set on the day of its release.

The Hubble is arguably the greatest scientific achievement of the Space Shuttle program and certainly one of the most powerful instruments humanity has ever created for understanding the vastness and history of our universe. The dimensions of the Hubble also did a lot to dictate the final size and configuration of the shuttle (less for the telescope itself, and more for the secret Earth-observing versions operated by the National Reconnaissance Office). Those design decisions, in turn, did much to shape the shuttle’s operational characteristics and history, including the design choices that contributed to the Challenger and Columbia losses.

The set will be fun to put together, and I should be able to find somewhere to display it even if I end up living in a tiny space.