Posts Tagged history

Apollo 45

Apollo_11_bootprintThis week marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and people are posting their recollections of that event under #Apollo45.

I wasn’t born until well after the last moon mission took place, but the story has been conveyed so vividly that I almost feel like I experienced it firsthand.

The footage of the Saturn V rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Neil Armstrong’s iconic words, and the image of an American flag on the moon’s surface have all been burned into my consciousness.

Yet the whole event seems unreal. It’s still hard to believe that massive rocket propelled the tiny Apollo spacecraft to the moon, and that the entire complex operation worked not just once, but multiple times, ending with the safe return of the astronauts even when technical problems on Apollo 13 made that outcome seem unlikely.

The United States hasn’t accomplished anything on that scale since the last moon mission in 1972, so perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people believe the whole thing was faked.

Obviously, it wasn’t but the Apollo missions may turn out to be a historical fluke. There’s plenty of enthusiasm for continuing the journey into space with a return to the moon, or even a mission to Mars, but the country can’t seem to muster the political will to make that happen.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in his excellent book Space Chronicles, the Apollo program was a product of defense interests as much as scientific interests. The Cold War was raging, and the Soviets needed to be beaten.

While the U.S. has plenty of problems now, none of them rise to the quite existential-threat level of impending annihilation by a communist superpower. The stakes are just too low.

A renewed space program could have many benefits in terms of pure science or even jump-starting the economy, but those are just too ethereal, and the fact that U.S. astronauts can hitch rides with the Russians while maintaining national dignity proves that space is no longer an arena for geopolitical chest thumping.

So will future generations have to accept that Apollo was unique to its time, an inspiring product of a terrible conflict that threatened to destroy the world?

Perhaps another momentous event (say, the arrival of a Vulcan survey ship) will galvanize Earth’s population again, but until then it seems we’ll have to remain content with memories of past triumphs.

Advertisements

, , ,

Leave a comment

Nashville: First impressions

IMG_2455One of the perks of writing about cars is getting invited to different places by car companies to go and drive them. That’s what got me down to Nashville last week.

Nissan held an event in one of the Music City’s nicer suburban neighborhoods, but I also had enough down time to explore some of the city itself.

Visitors often harp on the contrasting elements of cities, and Nashville is anything but homogenous. However, that doesn’t really add much to its charm.

Home base for my two-day stay was the Omni, a brand new hotel abutting a brand new convention center, a new-ish sports arena, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. You’ll never see sidewalks as free of gum and urine stains as the ones that surround this block.

This seems to be the image Nashville is trying to project. Almost everywhere I went, I saw new construction or vacant lots ripe for development. It’s a landscape of avant grade restaurants improbably wedged into industrial ruinscapes.

Yet just a block from the Omni and its pristine sidewalks is Broadway, the heart of Nashville’s tourist district. This is where you’ll find all of the honky tonks, novelty Elvis statues, and cowboy boots you’d expect of the home of country music.

This area is definitely not pristine. Everything’s chintzy, worn in, and a bit dirty, as a stereotypical tourists district should be. It’s also hermetically sealed off from the rest of Nashville.

Tennessee State CapitolHeading further downtown, there wasn’t much else to see. It’s full of buildings, all in good repair, but there’s nothing really there. Maybe I missed something during this admittedly brief visit, but I couldn’t find a reason to stop until I reached the Tennesse State Capitol.

This may have actually been my favorite part of Nashville. The building sits high on the hill with great views, and there’s an epic statue of Andrew Jackson standing over a small memorial containing the remains of James K. Polk, his presidential protege. The symbolism was fantastic.

So while there were many postcard views, Nashville just didn’t seem like a real city. It was decidedly urban, but it’s hard to imagine what people actually do there when the tourists go away.

Or do the tourists just never go away?

Elvis statue in Nashville

, , ,

1 Comment

There’s no glory in hindsight

1990 Lexus LS400They say hindsight is always 20/20. It’s also not very stimulating.

The Klingons were right to believe that life isn’t much without glory, and there’s not much glory in reassessing things after the fact.

Take Thomas Friedman’s seminal globalization text The Lexus & The Olive Tree. Friedman chose a Japanese luxury car as a representative of all things modern because, when he wrote the book, it looked like Japan was going to take over the world.

Friedman was blown away by the robots that assembled each Lexus, because after installing and caulking a windshield, they would spin around to allow a well-placed knife to slice off the residue. It’s the little things, I suppose.

The Japanese car industry’s dominance went beyond its products’ well-sealed windshields. When it debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1989, the Lexus LS400 was a revelation: a car with the luxury of a Mercedes-Benz, and the durability of Keith Richards.

As a kid, I remember the adults around me being very impressed when a friend or relative drove up in a Lexus. This was the mid 1990s; Lexus had been around for less than 10 years, and it was already a byword for exclusivity.

Then there was the Acura NSX, which whipped a Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, Porsche 911 Carrera 4, and Ferrari 348 in a 1991 Car and Driver comparison test, among others.

It seemed like Japan would ruin everything by being too good, but reality turned out to be a lot less dramatic.

Japanese cars are still big sellers in the United States, but they compete with reinvigorated American and European makes, as well as a couple from Korea. Plus, many of them are actually built here.

As Motor Trend editor at large angus Mackenzie noted in a recent column, Japan is now just one of many competitive nations in the automotive world.

Just look at the most recent Lexus LS 460hL: it’s a nice car, but it’s no longer a leader. While Japan continues to excel in other areas of the automotive sphere, it doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of analysts any more.

Qoros 3 sedanSo what’s past is past, right?

The media has a tendency toward sensationalism that doesn’t seem to ebb no matter how many times people are wrong.

There’s been plenty of hysteria over the past few years that China would take over the world economy because of its rapid growth, and its government’s tendency to borrow the most convenient bits from capitalism and totalitarianism.

But are things really that bad? China is already starting to show the strains of unlimited industrialization, so maybe we’re not doomed after all.

“Not doomed” doesn’t sound as exciting as an apocalypse, though. Or a car-building robot.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Backtracking

CDOT MULet me tell you a little about railfans. These people–who spend most of their spare time photographing, riding, and talking about trains–are a highly sentimental lot.

Growing up obsessed with all things vehicular, I quickly learned that not all trains are created equal. The old, obsolete, and rare are always more interesting to fans.

This makes a lot of sense: older fans are nostalgic about the trains of their youth, and everyone is nostalgic for a time when railroading was more romantic.

Just like classic car enthusiasts who love 1950s Chevys and Buicks, railfans love the streamlined E-Unit and F-Unit locomotives GM was producing around the same time. Their shape is easily as recognizable as a tail-finned Bel Air; it even adorns railroad station signs in the New York metropolitan area.

Rarity is also a factor. It’s just too easy to take a piece of railroad equipment for granted when it’s common, but as older things are retired, they become more of a catch.

Which brings me to the Metro North Railroad electric-mulitple unit (EMU) cars I found humming away in the caverns of Grand Central last week during rush hour.

These older cars are quickly being replaced with new M7 and M8 models, but will anyone miss them when they’re gone?

Metro North Railroad MUThese cars never generated much enthusiasm among railfans when they were new, nor do they have much historical importance.

Younger generations also aren’t as prone to sentimentality when it comes to vintage machinery as their predecessors.

Still, they’re becoming increasingly hard to find on the commuter runs into and out of New York City. Will that rarity make them more attractive?

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Manhattan car adventures

I spend a lot of time wandering around Manhattan, because I never know what I’m going to find. Last weekend, I headed to Alphabet City to check out the new (and slightly more spacious) Obscura, as seen on T.V.

On the way, I found plenty of other neat stuff, including a Hungarian bookstore and a few cool cars.

They’re not new, they’re not collectible and, out of context, they’re not even necessarily that interesting. It’s hard to say exactly what makes this random assortment of cars cool, but they definitely are. If you’re as obsessed with cars as I am, there’s something life-affirming about seeing an unusual model among the sea of beige Toyota Camrys.

Here are a few islands in that sea, in glamorous cellphone pic style.

Volvo Amazon

Volvo Amazon

Plymouth Valiant

Plymouth Valiant

Ford F-Series

Ford F-Series

BMW M3

BMW M3 (E46)

Buick Skylark

Buick Skylark

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Full Monte

Chevrolet Monte CarloThere’s nothing more American than the “personal luxury car.” Just the idea that a person is entitled to not just basic transportation, but luxurious accommodations, of their own speaks to the abundance of resources available to American consumers.

It’s also a lot of marketing hype: these cars were almost always titanic coupes with remarkably little interior space. They’re put to shame by today’s top choice for solo luxury driving: the prestige-badged German sedan.

No German luxury sedan has quite the presence of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, though. Although it was basically a modified version of other Chevys, it always had a feel and style all its own.

When it was introduced in 1970, the Monte Carlo was just a Chevelle with a stretched wheelbase. Nonetheless, it was considered a step up from its sibling in prestige, and today it’s much rarer, and thus, more interesting.

Chevrolet Monte CarloWhile the 1970 Monte Carlo pictured here was on its way to becoming a classic, things changed. In just 10 years, oil crises and emissions regulations forced Chevy to streamline and downsize its lineup, yielding the fourth generation Monte Carlo.

This car looks pretty baroque compared to cleanly-designed original, but its styling was in fact significantly toned down from a decade of ‘70s excess.

The car was smaller than before and, with the demise of the Chevelle, took up the mantle of Chevrolet performance. It was dressed up with a NASCAR-inspired front fascia and fastback rear window to cheat wind, becoming the Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe.

These two cars have little in common, yet they wear the same badge. Drivers of the 1970 Monte Carlo probably couldn’t have predicted that their car would look so different ten years down the road, or that it would eventually transition to front-wheel drive and disappear.

In the interim, these two cars found new owners: a lucky college freshman who wasn’t alive when his ’70 Monte Carlo was built, and an individual with poor taste in custom wheels. They’ve not only outlived the Monte Carlo name, they’ve outlived the entire concept of personal luxury cars.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

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.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment