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)

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.

Imaging the Unimaginable: Alien settings and Interstellar

Interstellar is coming in November! Here's a poster from the official website, and fans are coming up with more.

A standing challenge in SF games, graphic novels, and movies is to picture the unimaginable. If someone like Ellie Arroway dropped into an exo-solar civilization, what would she see? How to create visuals that are truly striking and uncanny, but also make enough sense to be processed by the brain? 

Stanley Kubrick's 2001 made an historic stab at it. One of the segments at the end, a fly-through of the Monolith, relies on color-negative aerial photography. Here's a link to Douglas Trumbull's description of the special effects used for the movie. 

Other alienated movies to check out are Solaris, Forbidden Planet, Prometheus, and the original Alien. The latter's spaceship interior (H.R. Giger, designer) still chills and impresses