Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy 25th, Abyss

This year is the silver anniversary of one of my movie favorites, The Abyss (1989):


Underwater shooting in an abandoned nuclear power plant and a lake in Missouri drove the actors close to desperation

Until 2007, the full-scale set for Deepcore was still intact at the filming location:


Here's a video about building the sets (this is Part 1): 


Fortunately, given all the agony and risk that went into this edgy project, the director's cut has aged well. 

I regard one scene as a remarkably vivid depiction of what a massive system failure feels like for those trapped on the inside. It's a segment in which a massive crane collapses into a moonpool on the Benthic Explorer, and then plummets toward the Deepcore rig, setting off a harrowing chain of events. I've never seen a movie that captured this techno-suspense as well as Abyss. (I'm not a big fan of the last twenty minutes of the film, but the earlier part makes up for it.)

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, sorrows come in battalions rather than single spies, and this part of the movie captures the feeling of utter helplessness as machinery spins out of control.

As I mentioned in this post on the history of underwater exploration, during the 1970s offshore oil companies considered putting manned, underwater drill rigs on the deep ocean bottom, along the line of Deepcore, but in the end they opted for the conventional approach of leaving the wellheads at the mud line, and the drilling rigs on the surface, connected by a riser pipe. 

And it was a smart choice: since then, remotely-operated submersibles have proven to be the best method for carrying out work that's more than a few hundred feet of depth. There's a lot of work for ROVs to do in the deeps of the Gulf of Mexico, off Brazil, off West Africa, and other spots, particularly after production starts. Much of the production hardware -- valve trees, pipes, pumps -- runs along the seafloor, more than two miles down, and only ROVs can handle that kind of maintenance.

Friday, November 14, 2014

MH370: Somewhere out there

Lest we forget, the seafloor search for the missing 777 airliner is underway. Here's the ATSB's weekly update.

A preparatory survey of 150,000 sq km of very rugged seabottom southwest of Australia has been completed. It's considered the most promising. The survey allows sonar towfish to be operated close to the sea floor without running into a cliff. 

Here's a diagram from a presentation about one of the sonar-search ships, Fugro Equator.


Here's one of the sonar-imaging towfish:


More than 96% of that mapped area still awaits a plane-hunting towfish, so it's too early to say whether the towfish are going to find anything based on the sparse satellite signals. 

Having read the Journal of Navigation article by Inmarsat on the analytical methods, I'm confident they're looking in the right place.
The biggest mystery has been the complete lack of MH370 debris in the water or on a beach. Here's the big picture of ocean currents:


I continue to hold to the theory that some massive system failure, such as an oxygen fire that disabled key electronics, was responsible but there's no proof of that ... or anything else. Some useful information might be contained in the 777's maintenance logs, but Malaysia hasn't released those yet. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Interstellar Weekend, and another alien landscape

Still churning out Interstellar fan posters on this end, drawing on my vast stock of ice macro-photography:


The difference from my first fan poster is that I've started using Procreate, a graphics app for the iPad. 

After two weeks, I've decided Procreate combines the best features of the five graphics apps I've tried so far: it has a fine set of drawing and painting tools, high resolution (up to 4K images), and excellent options for compositing layers, such as hard light, soft light, and color burn. I give it two thumbs up.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Anniversary, 11-9-79: A very close call

We're coming up on the thirty-fifth anniversary of what could have set off World War III: a close call in the predawn hours of November 9, 1979. It doesn't have a name like its fellow close-call, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Let's call it 11-9-79.

It started at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, at the time a command bunker for the North American Air Defense Command, NORAD, inside a mountain near Colorado Springs (Photo of North Portal, Wiki Commons):


It led to a high state of alert in SAC terminology -- likely the one called Posture 6 -- because duty officers saw what appeared to be a first-strike, sneak attack: thousands of missiles launched from Soviet submarines and missile bases. 

As standard Cold War history describes it, based on USAF reports and hearings: It happened after some careless person in the NORAD command post inserted a training tape into the wrong computer. The tape contained a scenario showing a missile attack from Soviet forces, and it went onto display screens across air-defense command centers including the Pentagon. The USAF classed it immediately as a likely false alarm and, within a few minutes, duty officers at Cheyenne Mountain confirmed that it was false. All concerns were resolved before the center would have needed to consult the National Command Authorities. No change in DEFCON status resulted, and no aircraft with nuclear weapons were scrambled.

Revisionist history: While the standard account is accurate in broad outline (there was a false missile-attack alert that morning and the USAF realized the fact soon enough) the details are more interesting and scary. I believe 11-9-79 was one of the five most dangerous false alarms of the Cold War like this Soviet one in 1983, which coincided with rather grave misunderstandings about the Able Archer exercises. (Fortunately, a Soviet officer held off elevating that one.)

I looked into 11-9-79 while researching my history of war alerts for Air&Space, "Go to DEFCON 3," but I didn't go into the incident in that article because the event didn't cause a change in DEFCON status. (Why not? It happened so fast there wasn't time for DEFCON alerting.)

Here's a layout of the complex: the labeled Combat Operations Center is what the movie WarGames tried to show, in Hollywood fashion.
 I went into the complex one time, as part of article research on space debris. My view of the command center and its display screens was from a class-walled conference room overlooking the floor, which they called the Battle Cab. (There was a fascinating point I learned there about situational awareness, but that's for another post).

Here's what the Cheyenne command center looked like three years after the 11-9-79 incident (Photo, GWU archives from the US Information Agency):
Certainly not as glitzy as the one portrayed in WarGames, 1983:


Following is what I could gather about how things almost spun out of control inside Cheyenne Mountain -- and outside. See also George Washington University's National Security Archive.
  • In September 1979, two months before the 11-9-79 false alert, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) activated a new automated-missile-warning system called 427M at the Cheyenne Mountain command post. Here's a GWU-collected photo of Cheyenne computers in 1982:

  • Numerous investigations had flagged the 427M system as problematic, years behind schedule, and over budget. In 1978 the GAO suggested replacing the entire thing.
  • The 427M system used for missile-attack detection at Cheyenne Mountain relied on two Honeywell 6080 computers to process data from missile-warning sensors, a primary computer and a first backup.
  • In a prolonged effort to sort out the problems with 427M, NORAD was carrying out a test program on a third 6080 computer at Cheyenne. This test program was the source of the attack scenario that got loose on November 9. It was not a “training tape;” it was part of troubleshooting.
  • Although the third 6080 computer used for the test that morning was not intended for operational use, it was connected to the 427M missile-warning system and available on a standby basis, as a secondary backup to the primary backup.
  • Exactly how did it happen? According to NORAD in followup reports, the exact manner could neither be determined or reproduced. I gather that the most likely reason was that the primary 6080 for the 427M system, and then the first backup 6080, crashed. This brought the third 6080 online. Now it was running the test scenario and there was no tag on the screens indicating this was a simulation. So the false information from the third 6080 went into the "Wimex" command and control system and onto Message Generator/Recorder screens at the Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, the National Military Command Center in Washington, and the alternate NMCC.
  • While the Air Force downplayed the response as just routine by-the-book precautions, it went beyond that. At least a dozen warplanes scrambled off runways in Europe and North America. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) took off from Andrews AFB, though without the president or Secretary of Defense (1974 photo via GWU):


    Seven Canadian Air Force CF-101s took to the air. Quick Reaction Alert aircraft (aka Victor alert) flew from NATO bases in Europe and set course for the Soviet border. It's possible that some of the QRA warplanes carried tactical nuclear weapons.
  • Why the big reaction? From what I can gather, the false alert on November 9 was unique in all Cold War history: it was the only time a completely plausible picture of an all-out, sneak attack appeared throughout the key air defense command posts. In all other cases of nuclear-weapon false alerts (going back to 1954), the attack information visible to controllers was strange on its face: glitchy and erratic, or glaringly inconsistent with likely war plans -- that is, displayed as an isolated and small attack.
  • We might not have heard about 11-9-79 except that a reporter from the Washington Star happened to be visiting an air traffic control center at the time and saw the excitement among FAA personnel, who were preparing to contact airliners to tell the crews to land immediately (the famous SCATANA protocol, partially implemented on 9/11).
  • Communications were opened with Washington, in the form of a heads-up call to Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The alert was cancelled before Brzezinski could call the president.
  • While the false alarm was resolved within six minutes, fast enough to avoid an accidental nuclear war, the process didn't go as well as it should have. The duty controllers at Cheyenne were unable to reach a recommendation in the short time permitted them, so the problem went upstairs to senior officers. It was worrisome enough that the USAF directed that the duty officers receive more training on how to handle alerts.
  • One reason that it was so stressful and dangerous is that the false scenario included a submarine-launched ballistic missile attack on the continental US, fired from Soviet submarines not far from US shores. Here's one of their Delta-class subs (photo, USN):

    A little more on the last bullet, the sub-launched missile factor. While our leaders touted their advantage of being resistant to counterattack, they didn't say much about how the close-in fielding of SLBMs (and later, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, also launched from subs) forced war planners toward a hair-trigger, launch-on-warning stance.
By the 1970s most of us still thought that attacks would come as waves of missiles launched over the Pole from the Soviet heartland, taking 30 to 40 minutes from launch to explosion. Actually the greater risk was from sub-launched ballistic missiles (Photo, USN):


SLBMs would have arrived at coastal targets a few minutes after launch. While SLBMs aren't as numerous as ICBMs, they would have had a truly devastating effect on all command centers, air bases, and major cities within a hundred miles of the coast. There would have been no time for the US to implement the Curtis-LeMay-style war plans of the 1960s, which envisioned scrambling hundreds of bombers and tankers so as to keep them safe from warheads aimed at air bases.

In summary, the world was very lucky that the U.S. didn't happen to be in a crisis with the Soviets at the time, like Able Archer in 1983 or the Yom Kippur War in 1973. (I described in my DEFCON article why the 1973 situation was so dangerous, due to developments in the Mediterranean Sea). 

Otherwise, given such a very realistic picture of sub-launched missiles in flight, and so few minutes to act, I'm sure this alert would have gone to the National Command Authorities ... whether or not President Carter was available.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What's the X Up To? Stealthy stuff, possibly


The third flight of the X-37B spaceplane is complete ...


 ... but speculation about its classified missions hasn't yet come to earth.  

Given the lack of evidence that the X-37B sidled up to other satellites, the most likely missions have been testing the spacecraft's performance and hauling intelligence-gathering equipment into low orbit.

But what kind of equipment? There it gets interesting. Let's think beyond remote-sensing that's pointed at obvious targets like aircraft carriers, defense factories, seaports, air bases, and mobile-missile testing facilities. Nor is it likely that it's been spying on other satellites (or the Chinese space station) with a telescope, given the enormous closing speeds. 

How about satellite-stealth-related experiments? This is a subject I track given my features on unmanned spacecraft and stealth tactics. I can think of three stealthy subjects the X could assist with. 

Snooping on other countries' stealth aircraft: If the X's payload bay carried the latest technology in infrared (IR) sensing, it might be peering down on flights of China's new stealth aircraft, the J-20, to check for heat signatures. Such an infrared telescope would be mounted inside the X's payload bay, and brought back to earth for upgrading at the end of each trip.

What about stuff moved outside the bay, temporarily or otherwise?

The X could be helping in tests of the latest satellite-stealth measures. Perhaps the USAF is shoving a small, low-observable (“stealthy”) experimental satellite out of the X's bay, and then keeping the X nearby, to facilitate ground-based sensing. That would allow the test satellite to get into low orbit without detection, since there'd be no separate classified launch for nosy people to watch.

Since the X could stay close enough to keep tabs on the testbed satellite's exact location, that would help in analyzing how well distant USAF sensors (on ground or in space) can do in spotting the elusive satellite. 

Background: The USAF considers satellite-stealth something we'll need in case of conflict. But keeping a satellite off a first-tier enemy's monitor screens won't be easy. For example, radar stealthiness (which requires materials to absorb radar energy) tends to raise the spacecraft's surface temperature whenever it's in sunlight. The waste heat makes it more detectable by infrared telescopes. 

To explain: radar stealth argues for a dull, black, absorptive coating on the satellite (as I saw on the B-2A's exterior surfaces when visiting Whiteman AFB for articles) but infrared stealth argues for a mirror-like surface to reflect sunlight, ideally away from the Earth. There is some talk of nano-tech to solve this dilemma. That may be possible, but it would need a lot of testing. 

Another possible stealth approach that the X could help test is simply to reduce the test satellite's radar signature to something that looks like space junk, at least on radar. There's a lot of junk to hide among (image, Wiki Commons):


That's a cheaper form of stealth than nanotechnology. If a tactical satellite could hide among the debris cloud, the USAF wouldn't have to worry as much about infrared emissions, since all the other debris is giving off IR as well. That approach is rather likely in the near term, in my mind. 

Less likely mission, but interesting: the X could be helping to test a prototype gravity gradiometer (GG). This is probably not ready for prime time; maybe in a few years. The GG is said to have the potential to spot enemy satellites that are otherwise completely stealthy in terms of radar, infrared, and visible light. If such enemy satellites weigh a few hundred kilograms or more, a network of GG satellites might detect them dozens of miles away. This would require a networked web of detector satellites, each taking and reporting its own measurements to the X by radio.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Experiences vs. Things: A writer's view

Good piece in the Atlantic today, Buy Experiences, Not Things, about what consumers say they get by way of “happiness dividend” when they spend a given amount of money on experiences (a vacation, a concert ticket, a hot-air balloon ride) compared to spending the same money on material stuff. 

According to the studies, purchasers report more happy feelings about the experiences they purchased, than the goods they bought.

One reason may be that while a new gadget like the iPhone 6 inspires people to rush out and join long lines, all such gadgets age, go out of date, and misbehave. While they may be a good spending decision in terms of sheer utility for the dollars, they also may bring as much grief as happiness.  

Yet a bad experience can morph into a positive memory, no matter how maddening the experience was at the moment. Why? It's raw material for a vivid story later, and listeners love a good story.

I can relate to this myself, being a lifelong member of the group that marketers call “Experientials" -- people who love to gather experiences. Advertisers think about experiences that are purchased or that lead to purchases, but I like to think of experience as a part of work.

It's one reason I got into feature writing. Having seen the middle column of the Wall Street Journal's front page as a teenager, I thought that going out to research and write such stories would be a good job to have. It would be an extension of what my parents did for my brothers and me on family trips, going on dozens of factory tours. 

And 36 years of feature writing really did open up lots of interesting places, many of which are normally off limits; and it gave me the chance to visit with many fine people in the places where they work.

So as to encourage newcomers into this line of reportage, here are some highlights from those field trips:

First story, visit into the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas: No, they didn't let me into the warhead-assembly line but it was interesting to go into the plant and learn about thermonuclear weapons and how they are transported hither and yon. Security level: pretty tight.

Second story, how buildings would age if abandoned, for Smithsonian: In 1983 I toured the World Trade Center's north tower from basement to roof, and had a long and fascinating conversation with the chief structural engineer, Leslie Robertson. Also I went into the innards of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Here's an illustration from that article:

Pennsylvania: Rode with a helicopter crew that maintained live, high-voltage power lines. This very skilled crew worked from an MD-500 helicopter, replacing spacers on a 230,000-volt line.This was the edgiest flying job I've seen first hand: pilot Mark Campolong had to keep the tail rotor within a couple of feet of the cable.

Other helicopter ride-alongs: on a MH60 Black Hawk with a Night Stalkers crew on a training mission out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Cobra gunship in Missouri, Sikorsky S-61 flight to to oil rig, Bell 206 in remote stretches of the North Slope.

East Texas: Accompanied a recovery team working out of National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, searching for a one-ton payload that came down in the Piney Woods. That was a lot of fun.

Los Angeles County Fire Department: crawled through their collapsed-building earthquake-training maze and jumped from a helicopter into a lake.

California: went to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the middle of the night to watch transmissions being prepared for Voyager 2; climbed onto the Deep Space Network antenna in the Mojave to see how the signals go out.

Time in aircraft simulators, with expert instructors: flew a simulated 737 in Delta Airlines' simulator, and a B-2 sim at Whiteman Air Force Base. The latter was a surprisingly high-security shop, perhaps because of war plans that are rehearsed there; even the public affairs officer with me had to prove his identity.

Colorado: Learned how to handle a roaring fire under a large propane tank; then donned bunker gear to crawl from a burning mobile home. 

Texas: a police officer taught me how to make 180-degree turns at 40 mph.

Carthage, Mo: toured a dynamite factory and got a closeup look at metriol trinitrate, a variety of nitroglycerin, flowing from one pipe to another, in the open air, so as to avoid shock waves. Safe to say, this plant had some of the most serious safety precautions I've seen anywhere.

Vertical Assembly Building, Kennedy Space Center: Joined a crew checking the orbiter Columbia for space debris damage; saw solid rocket booster segments being stacked.

Stennis Space Center, MS: Saw a live test of the J-2X engine.

Water Tunnel No. 3, deep under Manhattan and Brooklyn: Visits to the valve chamber and to a tunnel under construction, immediately after blasting. This was the most interesting time, but there's some danger of a rock slab falling on one's head.

Ropesville, Texas: Rode a cable to the top of a radio tower with a construction crew.

NYC: went into the wreckage of World Trade Center 6 (the Customs House), six months after 9/11.

Houston, Texas: Climbed to the top of a tower crane at a construction show.

North Dakota: Visit to the giant phased-array radar antenna that watches for space debris ... and sneak attacks.

Groton, CT: learned how to escape from a sinking, overturned helicopter at Survival Systems Inc. (article is forthcoming in Air&Space).

Kansas and Gulf of Mexico: Spent a total of a week at two oil rigs.

Minnesota: Took lessons on how to fly a helicopter.

Ohio: went into the Ohio State Prison to learn about safecracking from one of the residents.

Los Angeles: Accompanied a raid into a company making counterfeit merchandise, led by a private detective and sheriff's deputies. 

So, thanks to all my expert tour guides!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Interstellar Ice: The Fan-Poster

SF fans counting the days to the premiere of Interstellar are pretty eager to see what Christopher Nolan comes up with.

In my last post I pondered the problem of creating credible but uncanny images of alien neighborhoods, so I scanned my stock of ice photos for something along that line. Here's my shot at a fan-poster for Interstellar:



Except for the NASA image of the spacewalking astronaut on the upper right, all the imagery originates from my wintertime ice field, including the spray of stars. The bubble-headed force-field creature was less than an inch long.

For people who find it hard to believe that macro-photographs can be sufficiently rich in detail and depth of field to stand in for outer space, here's a quote from Douglas Trumbull about the "Stargate" effects near the end of Kubrick's classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey
"The images implied exploding stars, vast galaxies, and immense clouds of interstellar dust and gas. Without revealing too much detail, I'll merely say that these effects involved the interactions of certain chemicals within a camera field of a size no larger than a pack of cigarettes."
I'm working on a PowerPoint SF short story using more ice art, so will be back with a teaser about that.