Posts Tagged Cold War

The Space Rush

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launchThey say space is the final frontier, and like all terran frontiers, people are rushing to claim it.

In a way, we’re in the midst of a space-exploration renaissance, with a bizarre mix of nations, corporations, and random billionaires looking to stake their claim in the heavens.

Earlier this week, China announced that it had landed a robotic rover named Jade Rabbit on the Moon, while Iran is sending monkeys into space. Its the 1960s all over again.

Meanwhile, a host of private entities are making their way into space, helmed by a list of names that looks like it was generated by a random search of Wired.com.

There’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is already delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and hopes to modify its Dragon capsule to carry human passengers.

Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ mysterious Blue Origin, which is testing rockets and capsules at a top secret facility in Texas. Is Bezos trying to explore the galaxy, or conquer it?

Other, less practical schemes include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to send a few (very wealthy) tourists to the edge of space soon, and Mars One, which plans to send colonists on a one-way trip to the red planet. Don’t laugh: there are already 200,000 volunteers.

While it may seem haphazard and–at times–zany, this should be encouraging for those who believe space exploration is an important pursuit.

That’s because while we’re a long way from Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, space exploration is taking on the exact same tone as nearly everything else humans do on a large scale.

Exploration purely for its own sake is a nice sentiment, but what really drives people is money and competition. Whether its the Cold War or potential business opportunities, things tend to get done faster when there’s another motive.

Today’s space pioneers may turn out to be more like the money-grubbing Ferengi or expansionist Romulans than Starfleet officers, but hopefully they will at least ensure that humans leave Earth orbit at all.

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Stellar border patrol

Space FenceThose who want to build a border fence to keep out illegal immigrants will be happy to know that America already has a space fence.

It’s not for keeping out Klingons, though. Officially known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System, it’s used for keeping track of objects in or near Earth’s orbit.

Three transmitting stations in Alabama, Arizona, and Texas emit radio waves into space, which bounce off objects and are received by six stations in Arkansas, California, Georgia (two stations), Mississippi, and New Mexico.

The Space Fence network extends east to west across the 33rd parallel, detecting any object that passes over. The receiving stations are reportedly sensitive enough to track an object the size of a basketball orbiting 17,200 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Those objects include satellites and space junk. More than 10,500 individual objects are tracked.

Having massive radio arrays spread out across the United States, and calling that series a contraptions a Space Fence, seems ripe for conspiracy theory. While the Fence doesn’t track border-jumping aliens, it does do important work.

Objects in space move very fast (about 17,000 mph in Earth orbit), which makes them dangerous. The Fence can warn the International Space Station if a piece of debris gets too close, or help track a deda satellite as it falls out of orbit, plotting where it will crash.

There’s also an intelligence component to the mission: the Space Fence can detect when a spy satellite passes over the U.S., and it can calculate an object’s country of origin from its launch trajectory. Just think of what the NSA could do with it.

The Space Fence was originally run by the Navy, but it’s now administered by the Air Force’s 20th Space Control Squadron (yes, there really is such a thing). The squadron is at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, while the data from the Fence is analyzed at the Alternate Space Control Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.

So in a time when it seems like the government can’t do anything right, the Air Force’s space traffic controllers are monitoring thousands of objects zipping around thousands of miles above our heads.

At least for now they are. The Air Force is planning to shut down the Space Fence,which will reportedly save $14 million a year. The Air Force hopes to replace it with a more accurate system.

Hopefully the INS will be able to keep border-hopping aliens out of the country in the meantime.

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Five things that probably shouldn’t be nuclear powered

Once upon a time, people thought the atom was the key to the future. It may have just been the ultimate threat to human existence at the time, but Cold War engineers thought nuclear power had plenty of utility as well.

Using a small chunk of metal to power a city for decades seems like a good deal, as long as you don’t consider radiation and the occasional bout of China Syndrome. Before people started thinking about those little foibles, they came up with some pretty creative uses for nuclear power.

Ford NucleonCars

A functioning nuclear-powered car was never actually built, but Ford toyed with the idea. The company’s 1958 Nucleon concept was a 3/8 scale model intended to show what a production atomic car could look like.

The Nucleon had the cab-forward look of the Dodge Deora (of Hot Wheels fame), but instead of a pickup bed for storing surfboards, it had a rear-mounted nuclear reactor. While it would have made an interesting rival for the Porsche 911, it’s probably best that the Nucleon never made it to production.

Convair NB-36HAirplanes

During the 1950s, ships took their place in the triad of strategic defense thanks to nuclear power, so it’s not surprising that the American and Soviet air forces wanted to extend that success to their strategic bombers.

Strategic bombers patrolled enemy airspace in anticipation of a nuclear strike, a la Dr. Strangelove. A bomber with the unlimited range of a nuclear submarine would definitely have been an asset.

While a nuclear reactor never powered a plane, both Cold War rivals sent them aloft in conventional aircraft to see if they and their heavy shielding could be lifted. The Americans built the Convair NB-36H, a variant of the B-36 Peacemaker, and the Soviets converted a TU-95 into the TU-95LAL.

General Electric also built a prototype reactor in Idaho for the follow-up to the NB-36H, the X-6, but thankfully it proved unnecessary. Advances in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) eventually negated the need for a long range nuclear-powered bomber.

Atomic airship illustrationAirships

If a nuclear wing aircraft couldn’t work, what about one with the Hindenburg’s propensity for spontaneous combustion? The airship was out of vogue by the 1950s, but that didn’t stop The U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons from proposing an atomic version as part of the Eisenhower Administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

The Navy reasoned that an airship’s low power requirements would allow it to use a lighter reactor, and that it serve as a “flying aircraft carrier,” defending itself with its own fighter planes.

An even more ambitious proposal appeared in a 1956 Mechanix Illustrated article. Author Frank Tinsley envisioned an airship 1,000 feet in length (nearly twice the length of the Hindenburg) that could be used to publicize the Atoms for Peace program.

Ike ended up building the nuclear cargo ship Savannah instead, and that’s probably for the better. Given large airships’ inability to stay aloft (the entire U.S. airship fleet of the 1930s was lost in crashes), it’s probably best that one didn’t take to the skies with a nuclear reactor on board.

Russian nuclear lighthouseLighthouses

Before GPS, lighthouses were all that kept mariners from crashing into rocky shorelines and underwater obstacles. To keep the lights on, keepers needed to make sure there was plenty of fuel or electricity at the lighthouses’ remote locations.

That must have seemed like too much of a hassle to the Russians, who built a few lighthouses powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), the same type of generator that powers the Curiosity Mars rover.

Unlike nuclear reactors, RTGs rely solely on the energetic decay of a piece of radioactive material. As the material decays, it emits energy that is converted into electricity.

A box of plutonium might generate plenty of power for an otherwise inaccessible structure, but is it really a good idea to leave said plutonium unsupervised?

Project Pluto SLAMDrones

If you think the all-seeing Predator drone is scary, wait ‘til you meet “Project Pluto.” An atomic nightmare, it was a pilotless nuclear powered cruise missile that could launch its own nuclear weapons.

Known as a Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile (SLAM), Project Pluto’s mission profile exemplifies Cold War desperation. The reactor powered a ramjet, heating air fed into the craft as it moved and expanding it to produce thrust. this would have allowed a Pluto missile to travel at speeds up to Mach 3 and stay airborne for months at a time, allowing it to deliver a payload of hydrogen bombs to multiple targets.

It gets better though: Pluto’s unshielded nuclear reactor would spread radiation as it traveled along, making it pretty dangerous to the country that launched it. Developers believed low altitude supersonic shockwaves could also be dangerous to bystanders, but that didn’t stop them from testing a prototype nuclear ramjet engine in 1961.

In his memoir, Silent War, Navy special projects director John Craven recalls hoping that a defect would be found in the engine, shelving Project Pluto. To his (and my) relief, the military eventually gave up on its atomic death machine.

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Of robots and rockets

Pacific Rim and the Space RaceRobots and monsters! Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s soon-to-be blockbuster, sounds like pure nerd fantasy. Yet one aspect of the story sounds remarkably true.

In the film, humanity is attacked by giant monsters called kaiju, that emerge from an inter-dimensional portal in the Pacific Ocean. To stave off destruction (or worse, having to move inland) nations rally to build equally large fighting robots called jaegers.

The jaegers push the limit of what is technologically possible. They’re a bold vision tempered by the threat of imminent destruction.

Sound familiar? It should.

Strip away the monsters and robots, and you’ve got a scenario very similar to the one that led to the Space Race. Just as the characters in Pacific Rim live in constant fear of a kaiju attack, the real people of the 1950s and 1960s lived in constant fear of global nuclear war.

Instead of building robots, Cold War Americans and Soviets built rockets. Instead of defeating giant monsters, the goal was to demonstrate technological superiority and deny the enemy a foothold in outer space.

Sure, it’s easy to compare the fictional technological achievement of giant robots with the actual achievement of giant rockets like the Saturn V, but what really links Pacific Rim and the Space Race isn’t the human ability to create and wield technology, it’s the attitude that makes it happen.

The Cold War was, after all, the driving force behind the Space Race. In a 2006 New York Times interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, put it this way:

“What actually happened is that Sputnik lit a fire under our buns, and we said, “This is not good. The Soviet Union is our enemy and we have to beat them.”

Indeed, we wouldn’t have had sophisticated rocket technology or legions of trained pilots and engineers without the military.Pacific Rim and the Space Race

In that case, Pacific Rim might be a better explanation of the motivations behind human space exploration than Star Trek.

Still, there is a non-cynical way to look at this.

The positive side of both the jaeger and space programs is that they were all-out efforts that were pursued regardless of cost or chance of success. Humanity is capable of such feats, when it feels like it.

If humanity ever does face an existential threat that requires some awesome new form of technology to face, I’m confident we’ll be able to handle it; we’ve done it before. Solving global warming, on the other hand? Not so sure.

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We all live in a Russian submarine

Delta IV-class SSBNI love nuclear submarines, and I always thought that was a bit weird. Apparently not.

The Cold War-era nuclear submarine, Soviet or American, has become a trope of popular culture. It’s been the setting of movies like The Hunt for Red October, K-19 and the upcoming Phantom. A Soviet sub was even the setting for a recent episode of Doctor Who, appropriately titled “Cold War.”

Why have writers sent everyone from Sean Connery to Harrison Ford to Matt Smith to the depths of the oceans?

It’s certainly not for romance. Submarine service is one of the most arduous forms of duty in any military. Nuclear subs are sent on patrol for as long as six months at a time, and the crews rarely see sunlight. Just like on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701D), interior lights are the only way crews can differentiate night and day.

It’s cramped, too. Enlisted crew share shelf-like bunks, each man (during the Cold War crews were all male in both the American and Soviet navies) sleeping while the other is on duty. It’s called “hot bunking.”

But what the submarine loses in comparisons with Paris in springtime it makes up for in drama. Submariners are literally under pressure: at the depths they operate, submarines have to withstand many atmospheres of pressure, which threatens to crush a boat that dives too deep.

Hunt for Red October posterOf course, there was plenty of mental pressure as well.

Nuclear ballistic missile submarines or “boomers,” like the Typhoon-class Red October from the eponymous film, or the Ohio-class USS Alabama from Crimson Tide, patrolled (and continue to patrol) the oceans loaded with more destructive power than all of the weapons detonated in World War II.

During the Cold War, submarines were an insurance policy for both sides. The United States and the Soviet Union relied on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the certainty that if one side fired a volley of nukes, the other would answer it, to avert an apocalyptic global war.

Submarines were an especially good way to maintain MAD, because they are virtually impossible to detect. They run too deep for anything but below-surface sonar to be effective, and having two-thirds of the Earth’s surface to hide in definitely gives the boomer captain the advantage. That’s why the U.S. Navy calls its submarine fleet the “Silent Service.”

World War III could have easily started hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea. In addition to being perfect fodder for military drama, that scenario also ties submarines to the Cold War in the public imagination.

Doctor Who Cold WarWhich brings us back to Doctor Who. He can travel anywhere in time and space, surely Earth’s Cold War is a less interesting background than an alien hot war.

In the episode, where the Doctor and companion Clara are accidentally dumped on a sinking Russian sub with a frozen (and belligerent) Martian, the sub serves as the quintessential 1980s backdrop.

“Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the ‘80s. Everything’s bigger,” the Doctor declares while trying to acclimate Clara. He’s simultaneously doing the same for an audience twenty-plus years removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So the submarine has gone from harbinger of doom to ‘80s set piece. There’s even a Russian professor who’s obsessed with Duran Duran.

With so much resonance, the Cold War submarine might just be one of the most under-appreciated pop culture tropes around, which is fairly appropriate for a Silent Service.

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First world problems

So I’ve encountered a new phrase called “first world problems.” I have a problem with this phrase.

It seems to mean something that really isn’t a big deal, like having to prepare a presentation or being peeved that the barista put cream in your Starbucks concoction instead of milk. You know, things that don’t have to do with subsistence.

I see what people are getting at here. We all get wrapped up in our lives, make mountains out of mole hills and forget how lucky we are to live the way we do. That’s fine.

Checking your whining with a phrase like “first world problems” is a little obnoxious, though. It sounds like the person is saying “I know I shouldn’t be complaining about this trivial thing, but I will,” or “See how conscious I am of other people’s suffering?”

Both are very “first world” things to do. I’m a huge fan of irony, but too much of a good thing is still a problem. Drawing an implied comparison between oneself and a starving African child or a smog-choked Chinese factory worker doesn’t make a person sound smart or sensitive, it just makes them sound like they are trying to license their whining.

The phrase “first world problems” is also etymologically dubious. Do you ever notice why people never talk about the second world? It’s because the terms first world and second world were coined during the Cold War to describe the United States and its NATO allies and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, respectively. Any countries not within either the U.S. or Soviet sphere were referred to as the third world.

So maybe we should stop using outdated political terms to label our trivial complaints. It’s perfectly fine to complain, even if you know that someone else would be happy to be in your position. It’s not a big deal, and certainly doesn’t merit a snarky term like “first world problems.”

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The presidents: relative greatness

FDRPerspective is a good thing which, I guess, is why Newsweek decided to release a list of the 10 best presidents since 1900. With 18 presidents vying for a spot, each had about the same odds of making the list as they did of getting elected in the first place. However, the stakes were much lower here.

People (especially people with history degrees) like to say that the real measure of a great president is his legacy. That’s true; it is hard to know what a president’s impact on the country will be until we see the long term effects. Still, I’m not a fan of ranking the presidents.

Certain presidents are obviously greater than others: FDR topped Newsweek’s list, and rightfully so. The problems come when historians, pundits, or the general public try to compare incomparably great acts.

FDR won World War II, but Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War and freed the slaves. So which one is better? America wouldn’t be the same without either man, so how can one be better than the other?

The United States of America has had many moments that have defined its history and character. Singling out one triumph or crisis as the moment that made America the country it is today is nigh impossible.

There are other methods of ranking presidents, though. If weighing the relative importance of different historical events is too subjective, why not make it a popularity contest? Instead of pretentious historians, why not leave the decision of up to the people each president has sworn to serve?

That would be even more subjective. Frankly, the public may not know enough to make the choice. People live in the present, which is where they need to be to make informed decisions in the 2012 election, but it’s not so good if they’re judging the president from 1912, or 1812.

Ronald Reagan made Newsweek’s list, and he was also chosen as the “Greatest American” in a 2004 Discovery Channel poll. Most people think the Gipper deserves these accolades because he ended the Cold War. In reality, other parties deserve more credit. Reagan didn’t make the people of East Germany and the Soviet Republics to overthrow their governments.

Historians can be pedantic sometimes, but they have the contextual knowledge that allows them to understand the “big picture” of a president and his time. That’s why Barnes & Noble sells their books.

A quality like “greatness” may be too subjective to quantify although, like certain other things, people know it when they see it. That will inevitably lead to arguments over relative greatness, which will lead to a new search for an objective measure. It’s vicious cycle time.

Even if there were an objective way to measure presidential greatness, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. We might know that the man who ended slavery is greater than the man who fought World War II, or the man who was president first, but what meaning does that distinction actually have?

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