Monday, May 30, 2011

War and Peace in Space

In the United States this is Memorial Day, a holiday that arose from the American Civil War. The day that elsewhere in the Anglosphere is Remembrance Day is Veterans' Day here, and less somber. Most countries surely have some equivalent holiday. Previously on this blog I have noted it simply by recording the then-current death tolls from the wars the US is fighting.

War in space has been an ongoing major topic of Rocketpunk Manifesto. Possibly it is the single topic most addressed here, with fifteen numbered posts so far in the Space Warfare series (one of which, however, dealt with peace), plus several others concerned primarily or exclusively with blowing stuff up in space.

I will most certainly continue writing here on the subject of space warfare. And on fairly rare occasions, of which this is one, I will pause to point out that war in space, like war on Earth, is not in fact a particularly good idea. While I am no pacifist, I am also not persuaded that war is somehow an inherent and inevitable part of the human condition. Refer to the link above for my arguments on that point.

More narrowly I suspect that space warfare, as commonly pictured (including here) is very unlikely, at any rate through the plausible midfuture. Given the strategic value of Earth orbiting satellites, a war between terrestrial powers might spill over into orbital combat. But even if human outposts are scattered across the Solar System, it is very unlikely that any of them would be of sufficient strategic or political value to make the involved powers build and dispatch space armadas to fight over them.

Depending on the specific political context and prevailing culture of war, space outposts might politely ignore the earthly war, fight a mosquito war against each other, or be wiped out by interplanetary missile strikes.

Beyond the plausible midfuture, space communities might grow to the point where they could build their own armadas, if they so wished. I suspect that the likelihood of them actually doing so falls into the same category as enslaving colonists to work in the thorium mines. There is enough history of malicious stupidity in human affairs to provide grounds for such a scenario, but we are entitled to ask whether such things would actually be a norm. (And warfare, as we understand it, has been a social norm, supported by complex and admired social institutions.)

So, given that I don't exactly 'believe in' space warfare as desirable, necessary, or inevitably, why do I write so much about it here?

The crassest answer, with more than a grain of truth, is that that is what you want to read about. Space warfare posts generally draw the highest traffic and produce the longest threads. (The current post almost certainly will not do so!) I am not above pandering to my audience. After all, if I didn't care whether people read this blog, I could save myself the effort.

Another answer, less crass but arguably more disgraceful, is that some aspects of war are interesting. The general human experience has in fact been that war is mostly boring, and the parts that aren't boring are mostly horrific. But the gadgetry of warfare - from swords, chariots, and triremes to battleships, submarines, and missiles - has exerted a peculiar fascination. Only a few civil technologies produce a comparable fandom.

One such technology is railroads; another, rather happily, is space travel. Enter spaceship in Google Images and the resulting (mostly imaginary) images lean heavily toward combatant types. On the other hand, the image results for spacecraft lean toward actual vehicles or 'speculative realism,' and are on the whole much less warlike.

Finally, there is the point that this blog is largely about Romance, and Romance is all about human conflict. Mysteries would be nowhere without crimes, and space opera calls out for space battles.

So I will continue to provide them, alongside discussion of the immeasurably more useful things that we might actually be able to accomplish in space.

Related link: Give Peace a Chance


The image of Arlington National Cemetery comes, via Google Images, from a random travel website.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Moon Turns Fifty

Saguaro Moon
Thanks to the history of the early 1960s a lot of golden anniversaries of space milestones are coming up, and a couple of posts at the Atlantic magazine website called one to my attention.

Fifty years ago today, JFK declared that the US would reach the Moon within a decade, thus launching the Apollo program. Forty years after the deadline he set we are still living in its shadow. The two Atlantic pieces reflect, for the most part, one on JFK's decision, the other on its technological consequences.

Going to the Moon was, in some important sense, a stunt. Recently released tapes, as reported in the first linked piece, evidently shown JFK's own subsequent misgivings - mainly, it seems, about the cost, and the lack of dramatic progress as he looked toward the 1964 election. He mulls pitching a military use for space: not on the actual merits, but as a way to make it more politically acceptable.

This is not especially helpful to my own position in a recent post. (But it does not really challenge the core argument about public initiatives. YM, of course, MV.)

The other linked article deals with the path not taken, though I disagree with the author's interpretation of that path. NASA evolved as a vastly ramped up version of a previous agency, NACA, which dealt with aviation, and the idea of flying into orbit was well established in the rocketpunk era. It is certainly elegant; the problem is that it is extremely difficult.

Even 'conventional' ramjets overheat much past Mach 5, and while scramjets have now been successfully flight tested, these tests were enormously expensive, and tested only small scramjets operating for a few seconds. Given that high speed flight has been around even longer than orbital space travel, this does not encourage much confidence in flying to orbit as a practical technology. The Atlantic author sort of glides past that issue, but while you can glide back from orbit you have to get up there under power.

If my remarks here seem to contradict things I have said previously on this blog, it is because my feelings on the subject are in fact contradictory. A reusable two-stage orbital vehicle is, I would guess, technically viable. Perhaps, on a smaller scale, a three-stage vehicle with the first stage (or 'zeroth') stage based on jet transport technology.

But it is by no means clear that such a vehicle, if built, would make orbital spaceflight dramatically cheaper than the way we get there now. Or perhaps even cheaper at all. The problem is that any such reusable orbiter must have added weights and complexity in order to return for re-use, thus a reduced payload relative to its overall size, cost, and complexity. The savings from re-use may not be enough. Almost certainly they are not enough at the current tempo of space missions.

This is where I am supposed to neatly wrap things up and tie them in a bow. But since my views are complex and contradictory, I can only throw the question out for further discussion.

So discuss.

The image of a moonrise above Arizona saguaro comes, as so often, from Astronomy Picture Of the Day.

And a bit more honest plugola: Pending my setting up a proper permanent sidebar link, etc., a few more posts of mine are up at IBM Infoboom:

Business Analytics: Avoiding Too Much Information
The Open Virtualization Alliance: Virtual Storage Goes Open Source
LinkedIn IPO Sizzles: Business Social Media Are Cooking
Click love is very much appreciated!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Bit of Honest Plugola: IBM Infoboom

Once upon a time, torchships would have had a computer rather similar to this one, probably filling the deck below the astrogation deck, and capable of performing thousands of arithmetic operations per second!

Once upon a time, you would have found that performance level awesome. This particular machine is an IBM 701, vintage 1952. The company's first commercial scientific computer, it was known while under development as the 'Defense Calculator.'

Big Blue, of course, is still very much with us, their latest claim to pop culture fame being winning on Jeopardy! (In spite of an embarrassing slip about what country Toronto is in.)

It is also now, indirectly, underwriting Rocketpunk Manifesto. I recently started a work gig writing blog-style tech industry commentary for a forum that IBM sponsors, IBM Infoboom. They partnered with an outfit called Skyword, which in turn has partnered with me.

I have argued here that capitalism is unlikely to bring on the Grand Space Future. But it is capable of supporting some useful space activities, including putting food on our dinner table, which in turn helps keep me blogging. Remarkable how those things work out.

While I have no intention of turning RM into a commercial hustle (fat chance it would pay!), I'm not the least abashed about encouraging you to drop a little free click love on my articles at IBM Infoboom. My work there is aimed primarily at IT managers for small to midsized firms - which probably describes at least some of you. And chances are that if you're geeky enough to be reading this blog, you're geeky enough to have some interest in the tech industry and its trends.

So without further ado, here are links to my first three pieces for IBM Infoboom: (Registration is free, and I'm not even sure you have to register just to read stuff.) Drop by, and feel free to comment!

Amazon's Cloud Crash: Now Come the Reactions

Another Storm Hits the Cloud: Security Breach at Sony

Green Information Technology: Saving Money, Ensuring IT Reliability

As a byproduct of this gig, I'll so be (finally!) setting up an active presence on Twitter and Facebook. If you have any insights, drop them into the comment thread for this post.

The image, from a computer museum website, shows Thomas Watson (Sr) at the desktop console of an IBM 701. Apparently it is only urban legend that he predicted a global market for five such machines; IBM sold about 19 of this model during 1952-55.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Techjargon and Nomenclature

The title of this post combines two entries from my old Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy. We're in no rush, so read them and report back for further discussion.



These subjects are brought back to mind by the comment thread on Space Warfare XIII, which has now reached a preposterous 836 comments, taking it past the mere 820 of Space Warfare XII. I have no moral grounds for ragging on the commenters for being bloodthirsty, given that I served up the topics. One of the many subthreads of the discussion turned to language, particularly (of course) military language, in all senses of the phrase.

How soldiers (or even civilians) talk is an issue that science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction all face on much the same terms. Roman legionaries presumably swore in Latin, but surely not Ciceronian Latin. Nor was it even Caesarian Latin - at any rate not the Latin of De Bello Gallico, though Gaius Julius could no doubt express himself eloquently in good centurions' Latin when he needed to.

In a few cases we have direct evidence of how soldiers spoke: English troops in France during the Hundred Years' War said "God damn" so much that goddams, or godons, became French slang for the English. This is rather reassuring.

Contrary to a popular trope, most military swearing is not actually very imaginative. Yes, there is the occasional CPO or sergeant with Shakespearean mastery of English invective, but service field language relies mostly on a few very basic concepts, generously repeated.

Scroll down this old Language Log post (it isn't long) for what, from my recollection, is a very good summary of gruntspeak.

The example of godons also reveals another basic truth - styles in swearing change, over time and from culture to culture. In particular, while the Fourth Commandment still surely comes in for very frequent violation by service personnel, at least in 'Murrican military service the pride of place - as reflected in the Language Log example - now surely goes to what, with a delicate nod to spam filters everywhere, I shall call 'the eff word.' Even simpler military evolutions than passing pliers would be impossible without it.

Of course the eff word is no recent coinage. While its use by medieval English grunts went unrecorded, it surely did not go unspoken. (Shakespeare makes a sly grammatical reference to a 'focative case.') But it probably was used only in a fairly literal sense. In particular, acronyms such as FUBAR and the now-generalized SNAFU - like most other military acronyms - seem only to have become widespread during World War II.

And this is the point at which things get tricky. "Eff you!" strikes me as fairly timeless, nearly as home in the 31st century as in the 21st - or even in the 11th century, if the speaker is a Viking, given that "Odin damn!" somehow just doesn't work in our era. On the other hand, "all effed up" has - to my ear - a bit too much contemporary flavor, as though the speaker is not just a universal grunt, but specifically a current era 'Murrican grunt.

In this case, not only the YMMV principle but intended audience comes into play. Much military SF is, let's be honest, not just war porn but specifically Ameriwank war porn. Thus, for the stereotyped Baen audience (by no means identical to the full Baen readership, but surely a non-trivial part of it), 31st century espatiers who sound like they just shipped out from Camp Lejeune are a feature, not a bug. Note that this probably applies to an audience with inverse Ameriwank politics as well.

And it applies with even more force when we move away from swearing like a soldier to the more technical aspects of military language, such as names for weapon systems. SPQR may evoke Rome, but SPQ-31B evokes recent era Western militaries, and particularly (again) the 'Murrican military.

(Somewhat off message, but it surprises me that no one else seems to use USAF style sequential type numbering. Even the Soviet era Russians used manufacturer-centric aircraft designations, e.g. TU-95.)

Alphanumeric designations strongly evoke the recent era - great if the connection is intended, awkward and even frame-jolting if the setting is meant to have a more distant flavor.

More ambiguous are generic terms for weapons or ship classes, such as battleship and cruiser for combatant spacecraft. I have tended in asides and comments to come down fairly hard on such terminology - perhaps more so than is justified. For one thing, the opposite extreme of renaming familiar items can be horribly clunky. I've been unable to track down, among hundreds of comments here, a brilliantly devastating invented example, weapons with an imaginary name, described as "like swords, but more awesome." (Whoever wrote that, step up and claim your well-earned prize.)

Looking at different eras is, alas, rather unhelpful. Older terms for ship types, such as carrack or galleon, seemed to refer not to the ship's functional role but to structural features that are often now thoroughly obscure. (On the other hand, a 17th century Florentine type was called a bastardella, 'little bastard' - an expression that may not clarify its mission, but is timelessly nautical.)

Battleships and cruisers, by comparison, at least refer to familiar missions, at least in their 'classical' usage. (And by SF convention, cruiser seems to retain the sense of a large, fast independent patrol craft, not a heavy escort type.) I have argued against the automatic lifting of this nomenclature, as introducing a bias into our thinking about space warfare. But having said that, it is hardly implausible, in operatic settings, to have some heavy spacecraft, optimized for fighting power, that operate in main-force constellations, and somewhat smaller ones, optimized for mobility, that operate independently.

Details of an imagined technology come into play here. If the 'cruisers' are individually larger than 'battleships,' as is plausible (more propellant, larger crew), the classical terminology becomes a bit misleading. But this does give you a great excuse for battlecruisers, and the Rule of Cool is hard to resist in this case.

Another consideration is particulars of a future history. My old 'Human Sphere' setting was a variant on the standard First and Second Empire theme, and centered on nascent 'Second Empire' trade federations in the 28th century.

The 'First Empire' had no heavy space force in its salad days because it needed none. (Who was it going to fight?) So that particular setting should display a great discontinuity in military affairs. People might well cast back into history books to revive terms like frigate, but on the whole their combatant spacecraft and military institutions would more likely be adapted from police, exploration, or other activities and organizations that have some quasi-military features. Thus, in this particular setting, survey ship comes to have nearly the usual connotation of cruiser.

On the other hand, if your setting has space militaries established by terrestrial Great Powers in the 22nd century, with the latter having substantial continuity with the present day, your nomenclature jumps through a very different set of historical hoops, and cruisers can just be cruisers.


The image of a space battlecruiser comes from this SF website. I nabbed it via Google Images - one of eight space battlecruiser images that come up before the first image of the seagoing kind, HMS Hood. Not until the second page do you find any image of a ship that fought at Jutland.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Little Blowup

As some of you probably noticed - especially if you tried to post a comment - Blogger had a bit of a blowup a couple of days ago.

Things are reportedly getting back to normal, and any vanished comments are supposed to reappear this weekend. Assuming no further crashes, feel free to use this as another open thread.

A star in Taurus suffered a much bigger blowup in 1054, producing the rightly celebrated Crab Nebula.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Liberalism in SPAAACE !!!

xkdc web cartoon
Click to the original at xkcd to view the mouseover. Thanks to Winch of Atomic Rockets for the tipoff; he is not to blame for my (somewhat belated!) use of it.

This post is, obviously, political. You have been warned. But the political content is not gratuitous. There are plenty of places online where people whom I generally agree with bash on people I generally don't. (See his blogroll, which is actually fairly eclectic.) That is not my objective here. The remarks that follow are specific to the themes of Rocketpunk Manifesto.

I should also note, for a rather international readership, that I am using 'liberalism' in its 'Murrican sense of center-left, not the much more inclusive sense it has in political philosophy (let alone the center-right connotation that it has in some countries). And the entire post is parochial to the extent that it deals specifically with 'Murrican spaceflight. But only three countries have launched people into space; only two on a substantial scale, and I am conversant with the political culture of one of those.

The leading frustration in space geekdom is that while we have accomplished quite a lot in space, we have not gotten as far in space as we hoped, or people 40 years ago took for granted. 2001: A Space Odyssey remains the benchmark of our imagined space present - an alternate world of regular scheduled spaceflights, Moon bases, and human missions to Jupiter. It is the classic rocketpunk vision, with surprisingly little Zeerust.

It did not happen that way, and the basic reason is pretty damn simple: NASA's budget was cut. Reductions from the Apollo era peak were pretty much a given: Apollo was a rush effort to overtake and beat the Russians. That is why, for example, 'Moon Direct' was chosen over the traditional rocketpunk architecture of a shuttle and station first, then moonships.

The amount of cutting, however, was dramatic. NASA's budget peaked in 1965 at $33.5 billion (in equivalent 2007 dollars). By 1969, with Apollo up and running, the budget was down to $21.4 billion. By $1975 it was down to $11.1 billion, and stayed below $12 billion per year until 1983. After that, as the Shuttle entered service, the NASA budget rose modestly, and from 1987 through 2008 (the last year reported), it has ranged between about $15 and $20 billion, averaging $16.4 billion.

The NASA budget dark ages of the 1970s and early 80s were not without consequences, since this was the era when the Shuttle was developed. Richard Nixon reportedly regarded the space program as a 'Democratic boondoggle.' The expression is noteworthy, but his deeds mattered more than his words. He did not cancel the Shuttle program, but he forced a reluctant US Air Force to fund part of its development - in turn for which the Shuttle had to be designed for much larger payloads than originally intended.

What in earlier design iterations had been a sort of space minivan became the familiar space truck - and the combination of a larger payload and smaller development budget forced a fundamental design compromise. What had been intended as a fully reusable liquid fuel TSTO became only partly reusable, and dependent on solid fueled boosters.

We do not know how the Shuttle would have performed if built as originally conceived. There is a serious argument - I have at times endorsed it - that robust reusable orbiters are simply beyond our techlevel: Getting to orbit at all requires an extreme design, and returning in one piece (or even two pieces, for a TSTO) makes for an even more extreme design. You end up not with a truck or minivan, but the equivalent of a racing car that must be torn down and rebuilt before it returns to the track.

On the other hand, the experience of the Shuttle, and its various canceled would-be successors, may simply prove that you get what you pay for, and a severely compromised design is liable to deliver compromised performance.

The Shuttle, in fact, has performed remarkably well given its conceptual shortcomings - a heavy lifter, designed for an entirely new operational realm, but with no development prototype fully tested in advance of the operational vehicles. Its two catastrophic losses were both due primarily to operational failures, not its design shortcomings. Perhaps even more to the point, the design flaws implicated in both losses - the combination of SRBs and external tank for Challenger, and the external tank insulation for Columbia, - were both consequences of the Nixon-era design compromises, not part of the original TSTO conception.

What, you may fairly ask at this point, do particular decisions of a single president 40 years ago have to do with broader political philosophy? The significance is that Nixon's time in office is when the momentum of US political culture shifted against 'big government' and public sector initiatives, of which the space program was the iconic representative.

The downgrading of the Shuttle program thus turned out to be part of a larger political shift, which has affected American space activity ever since. NASA had, and retains, a sufficient base of public and interest-group support that, like Amtrak, it could never be eliminated outright, but it has been kept on a sort of starvation diet, the root cause of many of its failings. If you provide just enough funding to keep a program from dying outright, you keep it alive but ensure that it will be suboptimal.

At the same time an enormous amount of wishful thinking - but not so much actual money - has been invested in the idea that somehow the private marketplace would come to the rescue. But no one has yet managed to come up with the McGuffinite that would tempt big capital to write big checks.

Yes, we now have SpaceX, and may soon have Virgin Galactic, and more power to them both. But let us put them both in perspective. SpaceX aims to tweak and streamline some operational processes within the existing state of the art. It is not remotely an orbit lift game changer. And Virgin Galactic is all about selling the sizzle, not the steak. The sizzle is pretty cool - if I had $200 K to burn, I'd happily buy a ticket for five minutes at the inner edge of space. But the kinetic energy involved is only a few percent of that needed to reach orbit, and orbit is the starting point for space travel in the sense discussed on this blog.

It is always possible that this might change tomorrow - that some McGuffinite will turn up (or at least be strongly enough believed in) that the capital markets will pony up the trillion dollars or thereabouts down payment on the human Solar System. But the smart money has never yet bet that way.

The stall-out of space travel coincides both in time and functionally with the rise to predominance of libertarian economic attitudes. The irony is striking, because 'Murrican space-mindedness has deep and long connections with libertarianism, going back at least to Robert Heinlein.

It has been noted here and elsewhere that the ethos of rugged individualism associated with libertarianism is (absent some major magitech) a poor fit for the requirements of living in space. It also turns out to be a poor fit for getting there.

No, I don't expect anyone to leap up onto the stage, throw away their crutches, and proclaim that they have been healed! People adopt political philosophies for varied and complex reasons, and for that matter everything is not about space. I am merely noting that if, as a matter of principle, you rely on the private marketplace for nearly everything, don't hold your breath waiting for it to provide extensive space travel.

Standard provisos apply. The discussion above is focused on human space travel, but there is an argument to be made - I have sometimes made it - that going in person is nearly irrelevant to, or even a distraction from exploring space. In spite of xkcd, our robotic probes have opened up the Solar System to an extent no one in the rocketpunk era ever imagined.

Other provisos. It is certainly no automatic given that, had the liberal project continued through the last 40 years, it would have necessarily included a vigorous space program. The Space Race might have ended anyway once a touchdown was scored. And a significant segment of the 'Murrican liberal coalition has - at least since the 1960s - shown a marked, Thoreau-esque distaste for big noisy things that go fast.

It is also arguable that other strands of the 'Murrican right are not necessarily so unfriendly toward large public initiatives. 'National greatness conservatism,' of the sort sometimes championed by neoconservatives at the Weekly Standard, might well be open to a major space effort. Indeed, rhetoric along those lines accompanied the GW Bush administration's talk of going to Mars, which produced 'Constellation.' The rhetoric, alas, was not accompanied by funding, and ended up leaving NASA in a very awkward spot.

Once again, you get what you pay for. And to the degree that we wish society to consider space travel - human or robotic - profoundly important, I will argue that we must at least consider whether society, through a public initiative, needs to step up and pay for it.

It is tempting at this point to say "Okay - let's rrrrumble!" But as always in these comment threads, light is more useful than heat.

Saturn V launch

So I will merely say: Discuss.

(The Saturn V launch image is from NASA.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The March of Time

Mars and Regulus, time lapse images
Time, as I have noted previously on this blog, is nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once. Time is also what got away from me last week, which is why I'm posting this 'I'm still here!' message instead of a full length post.

The time lapse image, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, shows Mars and the star Regulus close together in the sky, and close to the same apparently brightness. The telescope was deliberately jiggled to get this pattern, which shows the scintillating ('twinkling') effect on the atmosphere on light sources of very small angular dimensions.

Also from APOD, this impressive - and a bit sobering - X-ray image of the remnant from Tycho's supernova of 1572.

Tycho's Supernova, 1572

Consider this an open thread.