May 02

Farewell, Mike

Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins died a few days ago at age 90. He was the command module pilot for the first lunar landing mission. In honor of his passing, here’s something that was posted on Twitter several years ago. The folks at @_Bands_FC saw a photo of the Apollo 11 crew and commented: “They looked like they could be coolest freeform jazz trio ever, so we made it into an album sleeve for them.” Here it is.

Mar 19

Prophecies: the Web

Arthur C. Clarke has died in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. To commemorate Sir Arthur’s passing, I’d like to highlight yet another of his predictions that has come true: the World Wide Web.

In his 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Clarke describes a device called the home communications console, or Comsole for short. Its elements are quite familiar: “the blank gray screen, the alphanumeric keyboard, the camera lens and speaker grille.” But what does it do? In a diary entry, main character Duncan Makenzie describes how his daily routine begins with the Comsole: “I dial the Comsole for any messages that have arrived during the night — usually there are half a dozen. . . . Then I set the news abstractor to print out anything that’s happened in my area of interest, and scan the result.”

But that’s just a small part of the Comsole’s capabilities. A later passage provides an overview:

Duncan walked to the Comsole, and the screen became alive as his finger brushed the ON pad. Now it was a miracle beyond the dreams of any poet, a charmed magic casement, opening on all seas, all lands. Through this window could flow everything that Man had ever learned about his universe, and every work of art he had saved from the dominion of Time. All the libraries and museums that had ever existed could be funneled through this screen and the millions like it scattered over the face of Earth. Even the least sensitive of men could be overwhelmed by the thought that one could operate a Comsole for a thousand lifetimes — and barely sample the knowledge stored within the memory banks that lay triplicated in their widely separated caverns, more securely guarded than any gold.

On this particular occasion, Duncan is merely trying to locate an old friend who is somewhere on Earth, so he uses the online directory to look up her contact information and then uses the Comsole to call her and have a sound-and-video conversation.

We take all of this for granted today, but when I first read Imperial Earth 32 years ago, the first home computers — the kind you had to build from a kit — had just come on the market. The idea that personal computers would connect to a global information network and provide instant audiovisual access to everything and everyone was stunning, and utterly beyond anything I had previously read. Clarke even predicted when it would happen: “The home communications console — or Comsole — had reached its technological plateau in the early twenty-first century.” We haven’t reached that plateau yet, but the Web is only a little more than a decade old, and almost all of what Clarke described is already available.

Imperial Earth begins with an incident from Duncan Makenzie’s youth, as a ten-year-old living in an underground city on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Attempting to use his Comsole to call his grandmother, he enters the wrong number and ends up connecting to something else:

There was no ringing tone, and no picture. . . . Duncan guessed that he had been switched into an audio-only channel, or had reached a station where the camera was disconnected. In any case, this certainly wasn’t Grandma’s number, and he reached to break the connection.
Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. . . . He was listening to the voice of the wind, as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head. . . .
Somewhere — perhaps in an abandoned construction project or experimental station — a live microphone had been left in circuit, exposed to the freezing, poisonous winds of the world above. It was not likely to remain undetected for long; sooner or later it would be discovered and disconnected.

When I read those words in 1976, the idea of using a computer terminal connected to a global information network to listen to the sounds of wind in the atmosphere of Titan was pure science fiction. But less than thirty years later, I did exactly that. Sir Arthur was right on the money.

Jan 28

Soviet space disasters

In the midst of delving into the history of Soviet space disasters, I just noticed today’s date. It’s the 22nd anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

This NASA description of an unmanned launch matches Heinlein’s account almost perfectly. It seems clear that his guide was actually telling him the truth in this instance. It really was a dummy, not a cosmonaut, and the cadets were mistaken.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned about several other incidents that I’ve never heard of before. This is from the “Dead Cosmonauts” chapter of James Oberg’s book Uncovering Soviet Disasters:

On April 5, 1975, two cosmonauts were dumped onto the Altai Mountains in the world’s first manned space launch abort. Pilot Vasily Lazarev and flight engineer Oleg Makarov survived a harrowing 20 G descent and then a bouncing ride down a mountainside before their spacecraft came to a safe stop. They came as close to dying as anyone can and later talk about it. Privately Soviet engineers told American colleagues that explosive separation bolts between the second and third stages had been miswired. For many years the Soviet public was left in the dark about these details.

Oberg also describes what sounds like the Soviet version of Apollo 13:

In the second article flight director Viktor Blagov gave a detailed account of the suspenseful Soyuz 33 mission in the spring of 1979, when a two-man spaceship was nearly stranded in orbit. The spaceship’s main engine exploded, and specialists feared that it had damaged the emergency engine as well.

And I can’t believe I’ve never hear about this terrifying episode:

Several dramatic space events never got mentioned in this period — the most dangerous being the Soyuz-5 landing in 1969 when the service module failed to detach from the command module, which then entered front forward and began burning up. Only at the last possible moment did the modules separate and the heat shield turn into the 10,000 degree heat pulse.

Oberg wrote two books on this subject. I’m going to have to get my hands on them.

Jan 27

Lost cosmonauts?

Following a tip from Instapundit, I was shocked to read a disturbing revelation about the early history of space flight: Yuri Gagarin was not the first human to fly in space. This claim was apparently published at Pravda Online back in 2001, but I’ve never heard about it before today. The article is very brief, so I will quote the whole thing here:

As 40 years have passed since Gagarin’s flight, new sensational details of this event were disclosed: Gagarin was not the first man to fly to space. Three Soviet pilots died in attempts to conquer space before Gagarin’s famous space flight, Mikhail Rudenko, senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office 456 (located in Khimki, in the Moscow region) said on Thursday. According to Rudenko, spacecraft with pilots Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov at the controls were launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome (in the Astrakhan region) in 1957, 1958 and 1959. “All three pilots died during the flights, and their names were never officially published,” Rudenko said. He explained that all these pilots took part in so-called sub- orbital flights, i.e., their goal was not to orbit around the earth, which Gagarin later did, but make a parabola-shaped flight. “The cosmonauts were to reach space heights in the highest point of such an orbit and then return to the Earth,” Rudenko said. According to his information, Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov were regular test pilots, who had not had any special training, Interfax reports. “Obviously, after such a serious of tragic launches, the project managers decided to cardinally change the program and approach the training of cosmonauts much more seriously in order to create a cosmonaut detachment,” Rudenko said.

My immediate reaction to this was “My God, Robert Heinlein was right!”
You probably have no idea what I’m talking about unless you’ve read an essay that Heinlein wrote after his visit to the USSR in 1960. The essay is titled “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, and it is reprinted (along with “Inside Intourist”, another essay on the same topic) in the Heinlein collection Expanded Universe.

The title “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'” refers to the Russian word pravda, which is literally translated as “truth”, but in the Soviet Union really meant “what the Communist Party says is true”. Because she and her husband wanted to learn the truth, not the pravda, about life in the USSR, Virginia Heinlein spent two years learning Russian. She took classes at the University of Colorado, hired a private conversation tutor, and listened to language instruction records until, in Robert’s words, “she could read Russian, write Russian, speak Russian, understand Russian — and think in Russian.”

As a result, the Heinleins knew that they would not be dependent on their tour guides (employees of Intourist, the official state travel agency) for information. They would know what people around them were really saying, not what the tour guides claimed they were saying. And if they managed to slip away from their keepers, they might be able to talk to ordinary citizens of the USSR and learn things about life in that country that the tour guides would never tell them. This was risky behavior in 1960, but Robert and Virginia wanted to know the facts about the Soviet Union, not a Potemkin village version.
In “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, Heinlein describes an incident that occurred while they were visiting Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania (which was then known by its Russian name, Vilno).

About noon on Sunday, May 15, we were walking downhill through the park surrounding the castle that dominates Vilno. We encountered a group of six or eight Red Army cadets. Foreigners are a great curiosity in Vilno. Almost no tourists go there. So they stopped and we chatted, myself through our guide and my wife directly, in Russian.

Shortly one of the cadets asked me what I thought of their new manned rocket. We answered that we had had no news lately — what was it and when did it happen? He told us, with the other cadets listening and agreeing, that the rocket had gone up that very day, and at that very moment a Russian astronaut was in orbit around the earth — and what did we think of that?

I congratulated them on this wondrous achievement but, privately, felt a dull sickness. The Soviet Union had beaten us to the punch again. But later that day our guide looked us up and carefully corrected the story: The cadet had been mistaken, the rocket was not manned.

That evening we tried to purchase Pravda. No copies were available in Vilno. Later we heard from other Americans that Pravda was not available in other cities in the USSR that evening — this part is hearsay, of course. We tried also to listen to the Voice of America. It was jammed. We listened to some Soviet stations but heard no mention of the rocket.

This is the rocket the Soviets tried to recover and later admitted that they had had some trouble with the retrojets; they had fired while the rocket was in the wrong attitude.

So what is the answer? Did that rocket contain only a dummy, as the pravda now claims? Or is there a dead Russian revolving in space? — an Orwellian “unperson,” once it was realized that he could not be recovered.
I am sure of this: At noon on May 15 a group of Red Army cadets were unanimously positive that the rocket was manned. That pravda did not change until later that afternoon.

You can see why I reacted to the 2001 Pravda Online article by thinking that Heinlein’s anecdote had been confirmed. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, the dates don’t match. The Heinleins met those Red Army cadets on May 15, 1960. That’s almost a year before Gagarin’s flight, but too late to be any of the suborbital launches described by Pravda Online (which allegedly took place in 1957, 1958, and 1959). And the cadets described an orbital flight.

I have trouble believing the Pravda Online story, especially the claim of a manned launch in 1957. The USSR didn’t even launch Sputnik I until October of that year, and that was a metal sphere a mere 28 inches in diameter. It did weigh as much as a man (183 pounds), but not nearly as much as a spacecraft capable of carrying a man, keeping him alive, and returning him safely to Earth. The Soviets simply didn’t have the ability to loft anything that massive into space, even on a suborbital trajectory, in 1957.

And who is this Mikhail Rudenko that Pravda Online cites as a source? The 2001 article says he is (or was) “senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office”. I’ve never heard of him or the Experimental Design Office before. How does he know about these alleged flights? Does he have any government documents or other evidence to back up his story, or are we just supposed to take his word for it? If these launches really took place, many other people must have been involved. I’d like to see some of them corroborate Rudenko’s claim.

It turns out that Pravda Online has no actual connection to the newspaper that Robert Heinlein couldn’t find in Vilnius. The original Pravda was closed in 1991 by President Yeltsin, and Pravda Online is an unrelated Web site run by some former Pravda staff members. Judging by the other content at that site, it’s the equivalent of a supermarket tabloid in the U.S. And as far as I can tell, the information in the 2001 article hasn’t been published anywhere else. That doesn’t inspire very much confidence.

The whole topic of whether the USSR had unsuccessful manned space flights before Gagarin’s (and hushed them up) is a swamp of legends, hoaxes, and outright lies. Wikipedia has an article on the subject that lists about two dozen “lost cosmonauts”, including the three listed in the Pravda Online article and Heinlein’s 1960 account. Most of the lost-cosmonaut claims are rumors with little or no supporting evidence.

Who knows if any of it is true? I can easily believe that the Soviet space program had early failures, some of them fatal, that were never publicized. But any specific claims of that sort will have to be documented better that the ones we’ve seen so far.

Jun 05

We come in peace . . . ZAP!

According to this Science@NASA article, the MESSENGER probe will fly past the planet Venus today on its way to Mercury. As part of the flyby, MESSENGER will fire a laser at Venus. When MESSENGER reaches Mercury in 2011, it will shoot its laser at that planet too.
Is this really a good idea? How are the inhabitants of these planets going to react to unprovoked laser attacks by a probe from Earth? I hope this doesn’t set off an interplanetary war. At least we’re not attacking Mars yet — although the Martians are probably rather annoyed at us anyway, because of . . . well, just watch this video and you’ll understand why.

Mar 30

The Hex Nut of the Giants

Science reporter John Tierney has challenged his readers to come up with an inventive name and/or explanation for the Saturn hexagon.
I’ve already posted one theory about it, but here’s another one: it’s part of a publicity campaign by the Saturn Corporation. You know, the company that makes Saturn cars. They will soon be unveiling a new vehicle called the Saturn Hexagon, and the six-sided feature on the planet Saturn is just a really big billboard.

Mar 28

Polar vortex

A polar vortex is (in the words of Wikipedia) “a persistent, large-scale cyclone located near the Earth’s poles.” But some other planets have them too. Saturn, for example, has vortices at both of its poles. The south polar vortex is pretty typical; it looks like a giant hurricane. But Saturn’s north polar vortex is hexagonal. Nobody knows why.
When I saw the pictures of Saturn’s polar hexagon, the first thing I thought of was the Well of Souls series of novels by Jack Chalker. It takes place on the Well World, a planet almost entirely tiled with hexagonal features that are visible from space. But the Well World is an artificial structure. And, ironically, the poles are among the few parts of it that are not covered by hexagons. (The only other exception is the equator.)
So Saturn’s polar hexagon must be caused by something else. I’ll bet there’s a black monolith at the center of it.

Mar 19

Maximum absorption garments

Everyone knows that ex-astronaut Lisa Nowak was wearing an official NASA-issue diaper when she was arrested for attempted kidnapping. But exactly what kind of diaper is that? As reporter Roy Rivenburg wrote in an article for the Los Angeles Times, “the answer is shrouded in mystery”. Eventually, the determined Rivenburg got to the bottom (ahem) of the matter.