Posts Tagged Cold War

A tale of two taillights

1955 Chevy Bel AirWhat’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.Tesla Model S

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.


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Cape Cod oddities: Jenny Lind Tower and North Truro Air Force Base

Jenny Lind TowerVisitors 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!

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Epoch tech

Ford NucleonTechnology 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.

NS Savannah cutawayThe 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.

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Fifty years after John Glenn’s flight, how far have we come?

Friendship 7Fifty years ago Monday, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. His flight was the product of Cold War paranoia, a “Space Race” that was part scientific endeavor, part arms race, and part national ego trip. Who would have thought that, 50 years later, the flight of Friendship 7 would be viewed as a quaint historical episode?

In 2012, the Cold War is long over and the Space Race has been nicely compartmentalized within it. In some ways, the American space program is worse off than it was in the early ‘60s: since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, Americans have been hitching rides on Russian spacecraft. How’s that for irony?

When my high school history class finally got to the 1960s, the teacher decided to skip over the Space Race because, he claimed, it had no greater relevance. It is easy to see his point: space exploration sprung out of the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and didn’t really develop after the two sides resolved their differences. Now, the Cold War seems almost nostalgic in an era of terrorism and globalization.

Nonetheless, space could still be an important part of American policy, if people were willing to invest the time and money that they did in the ‘60s. The Mercury and Apollo programs were triumphs of public-private partnership: the government provided the cash and oversight, private contractors provided the tools and skills. NASA told McDonnell that they needed a capsule for John Glenn and the other astronauts to ride; McDonnell built Friendship 7.

Wouldn’t a project like that be valuable today? The space program created jobs and made America a world leader in science, two things the U.S. needs to happen again. Project Mercury showed what can happen when everyone, government officials and private contractors, liberals and conservatives, work together in a single, national, effort.

Instead of bickering about how money is spent or complaining that one’s rights are being infringed upon every time we don’t like a new law, Americans need to focus on the bigger picture. Everyone looked up when John Glenn took off 50 years ago; who will replace him?

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America needs a new spaceship

It’s been one week since the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the final time, and I still have not gotten over it. Some people were glad to see the Shuttle go; they say that making it America’s only space vehicle limited space exploration to the crafts’ range and payload capacity. But they’re missing the point. America’s space program has always been about showing what the nation can do when it needs to prove to other nations that it is better than them.

When we got to the 1960s in high school history, the teacher said he was not going to teach the Space Race because it did not have a long-term impact. He was right: NASA was born of Cold War desperation. The Soviets had launched Sputnik and the United States needed to do something to keep from falling behind technologically. Americans were afraid the Commies would use their mastery of space to train scientists and develop technologies that could render the West uncompetitive, or unleash a hellish rain of nuclear projectiles.

Cold War paranoia drove the Space Race, encouraging the government to fund research, build bigger rockets, and ultimately send humans to the Moon. Now that the Cold War has been over for almost two decades, it is difficult to understand why we bothered. Space exploration has yielded few tangible benefits besides bragging rights and memory foam. Given that, and the fact that an iPod Nano probably has more computing power than an Apollo Command Module, it is easy to see why so many people don’t believe we were ever on the Moon.

Without the Cold War, NASA seems like an expensive luxury, something Republican Congressmen would scoff at. Most people don’t pay attention to Shuttle launches, but the few who see them in person say it is an unbelievable experience. Science may be important, but that awesomeness is still an important part of why the United States sends people into space.

Astronauts and NASA boosters get dewy-eyed about pushing the limits of human endurance and knowledge, and this has something to do with that. The Space Shuttle and NASA’s other manned missions have pushed human limits but, more importantly, they did it in full view of the American public and other nations. They showed that America could build the most complicated machine in history, and routinely blast men and women into orbit with it. The space program shows that the U.S., government and citizens, can accomplish difficult tasks many thought impossible, even if they have no bearing on the daily lives of the average person.

That propaganda role may seem unnecessary in the post-Cold War world; radical Islamist terrorists don’t care about how many rockets we have. However, with China poised to overtake the U.S. in the all-important economic category of buying stuff, and anxiety over the debt ceiling, there is no better time for an expensive, complicated (possibly job creating) technological exercise. It’s time to stop pointing out the reasons why America can’t do things so we can start doing things.

The Space Shuttle’s time may have come, but it is still a sad moment. It’s sad because the Shuttle will not be replaced with something better; that it won’t be replaced at all. The United States will not have a vehicle to take astronauts into space; we have essentially stepped backwards. To maintain our national pride, America needs a new spaceship. Call me when the Enterprise is ready.

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