Posts Tagged Cold War
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Robots 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Perspective 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?
What’s in a taillight? When Chevy rolled out its iconic 1955 models, it put the gasoline filler in the left taillight. Over 50 years later, Tesla is borrowing that unique feature: the company’s Model S electric car has its socket in the left taillight. Both these cars represent the design of their times, and they couldn’t be more different.
The ’55 Chevy (and it’s 1956 and 1957 “Tri-Five” siblings) was inspired by the hot technologies of its day: jets and rockets. Its tail fins were inspired by the tail booms of a World War II P-38 Lightning, and with their glowing red taillights, they look like rocket motors. It also has plenty of chrome because, in the 1950s, people thought everything in the future would be chromed.
The Tesla is also inspired by the technology of its day: computers, tablets, and smart phones. It’s powered by laptop batteries, so the Model S has the same minimal lines as a digital device; it’s definitely modern, but not overly elaborate. Americans today are more interested in social media than space exploration, which is why the interior is designed around the largest touch screen available in a car.
The Model S certainly proves that electric cars aren’t for nerds, that they can be just as stylish and luxurious as their petrol-powered counterparts. However, it doesn’t light my fire the way a ’55-’57 Chevy does. Why? It’s all about the inspiration.
Trying to make a car look like a jet fighter is a great idea because jet fighters look cool. Tablets and smart phones do look sleek and modern, but they’re not much to go on when designing something more substantial, like a car.
The promise of space travel, cheap transcontinental jet flight, and atomic power never really played out, but least that technology looked cool. You can’t say that about today’s technology, even if it is more efficient and more useful.
The 1955 Chevrolet is a classic car partly because of the optimistic image it invoked. The Model S will certainly go down in history as an important car, but will it be a classic? Only time will tell.
Visitors to Truro, one of the towns on the outer edge of Cape Cod, are in for an unusual sight, if they know where to look. If they’re not too distracted by the view of the Atlantic Ocean, they might notice what looks like a giant chess rook and golf ball standing in a field near the Highland lighthouse.
The stone tower, which stands 70 feet tall and looks like it was taken from a European castle, is actually part of a train station. It was one of two towers from the Fitchburg Railroad depot in Boston, and is known to Cape Codders as the Jenny Lind Tower.
Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” gave a concert in the auditorium above the station in 1850. Legend has it that Lind sang from the top of the tower to quell an angry mob of people who couldn’t get tickets.
The story may be fake, but it was enough to convince one of Jenny’s fans, Henry M. Aldrich, to save the tower when the station was demolished in 1927. The tower was transported stone by stone and reassembled in Truro.
The land the tower sits on later became part of the North Truro Air Force Station. Constructed shortly after World War II, the site was part of the Air Defense Command (ADC). North Truro’s radar units (including the large golf ball-shaped array next to the Jenny Lind Tower) scanned the skies for incoming Soviet bombers, an important task during the paranoid Cold War years.
With the Cold War over, most of the base was decommissioned in 1994. However, the radar installation still functions was part of the Federal Aviation Administration/NORAD Joint Surveillance System, routing information to FAA and Air Force control centers.
The radar unit is unmanned, so the rest of the base has been abandoned since 1994. It sits on the Cape Cod National Seashore, and the National Park Service is trying to develop it for community use as the Highlands Center. Until then, the old buildings will be a great spot for urban exploring.
To get a closer look at these architectural oddities, take Route 6 to North Truro and look for the Highland Light exit. Turn right onto Highland Road, make another right onto South Highland Road, and then make a left onto Old Dewline Road.
The Jenny Lind Tower and North Truro Air Base radar can also be seen from the Highland Lighthouse, especially if you climb to the top of the 66 foot tall tower!
Technology has a way of defining the times that create it. That’s why we have so many technological “ages.” Humanity has seen the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and even the Atomic Age. In a way, the current Digital Age is just repeating history. Like those past ages, the Digital Age features one epoch-defining technology (the Internet) that people try to apply to everything. If the past is any indication, that won’t work.
In 1945, the United States dropped two Atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II and beginning an age of nuclear experimentation. In hindsight, playing around with radioactive materials seems a tad silly, but in the 1950s scientists couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
As with the Internet and stone tools, nuclear reactions quickly outgrew their original use. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover quickly figured out that nuclear powered ships would almost never have to be refueled; the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus was launched in 1954. Concurrently, nuclear reactors were seen as a way to provide limitless quantities of cheap electricity.
That’s when things started to get out of hand. Soon, the Air Force was testing airborne reactors for a nuclear-powered bomber. In addition to the obvious safety risks, the reactor and its shielding would have been so heavy that the nuclear bomber would have had trouble taking off. Ford even created a (non-functioning) atomic car, the Nucleon, for the 1958 auto show circuit.
But these were fringe ideas; no one would actually buy a nuclear-powered car. No matter how great a new technology seems, it can’t fit every application. The best example of that is a less-ambitious project: the nuclear cargo ship.
In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed building such a ship as part of his “Atoms for Peace” program, which was meant to showcase peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The NS Savannah seemed like a perfect case: it took the nuclear propulsion technology from Navy warships and applied it to civilian commerce. By the time the Savannah was launched in 1959, the Nautilus had already logged over 60,000 nautical miles on nuclear power, and sailed under the North Pole. Atomic seafaring seemed like a sure bet; like the Nautilus, the Savannah was meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of atomic energy.
The keyword is “seemed.” Nuclear power may have worked on an attack submarine, but it was not ideally suited to hauling freight. In fact, the Savannah’s novel system of propulsion upset an ancient precedent in maritime labor. Traditionally, deck officers on merchant ships were paid more than engineering officers. However, on the Savannah, the engineering officers needed extra training to run the ship’s reactors, earning them more pay than the deck officers. The labor dispute ultimately made the ship economically unfeasible.
The cost of running a nuclear ship completely outweighed the Savannah’s positive attributes. She could steam at a heady 24 knots consistently, and only needed to be refueled once every 20 years. Still, the U.S. Maritime Administration determined that it costs $2 million more per year to operate the Savannah than a conventional cargo ship. Nuclear technology was simply too complex for the low-budget world of international shipping. Unlike the Navy, shipping companies only cared about profits, and they didn’t need the Savannah’s speed and fuel economy, not when oil was so cheap.
Today, we risk falling into the same trap. Both private companies and the government think the Internet is the solution to everything. They believe people’s bills, medical records, and shopping will be inherently better in digital form. Digital technology has given the world some amazing things, just as nuclear technology gave the world the Nautilus and the atomic clock. Yet not every problem can be solved with an app, just as not every vehicle can work better with a nuclear reactor.