All posts by Rand Simberg

Looking More Like Sabotage To Me

Well, let’s see now–the data is accumulating. Both engines are intact (no internal failure), so that eliminates the bird ingestion theory. The aircraft lost both engines and the vertical stabilizer. The latter was reportedly taken off as cleanly as if someone had simply…loosened the fasteners. And the investigators say “they cannot rule out sabotage.”

Well, from what I understand about the situation now, being a glass-half-full-of-sabotage kind of guy, I’d put it differently–we cannot rule out random mechanical failure, but it’s starting to look very unlikely. The chances of a single engine falling off are very low. The chances of both engines just falling off are very low squared. The chances of both engines falling off, and the vertical stabilizer cleanly falling off are infinitesimal, absent active (sub)human intervention.

And the reporting on this is atrocious (as though that would distinguish it from any other subject). I’ve read things like “no intruders’ voices were heard on the cockpit voice recorder, ruling out sabotage.” As though it’s necessary, or even desirable, to be on an airplane that you’re sabotaging. Do these people even know what the word sabotage means?

OK, let’s forget about nail clippers and cleaning crew for the moment. How tight is the security in the maintenance hangars? What kind of background checks do the mechanics get? Have they checked the maintenance records for the plane, and checked to see who worked on it most recently, and who had access to it? It could have been done the night before, by simply loosening a few bolts on the pylons and empennage. Or it could have been done weeks before, planting shaped charges with a radio-controlled detonator, to blow off the engines and tail right after takeoff, almost ensuring a crash in…Queens. I hope that American (and the other airlines) have done an inspection of their entire fleet before flying them again.

At this point, if it turns out to not be sabotage, I’ll be very interested to hear the NTSB explanation for this one. It may be almost as entertaining (and sad) as the video that they cobbled together for TWA 800 to explain how flames falling from an aircraft could somehow magically appear to be a fire trail heading up toward it, to hundreds of eyewitnesses.

It’s Nu-clee-ar, Dammit!

Look, I’m eternally grateful that George Bush won instead of Al Gore, though I didn’t vote for him (of course, I didn’t vote for Gore either…). And I’ve always thought that picking on his elocution by the likes of Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live was silly, counterproductive, and not all that funny (the media apparently misunderestimated his strategery). And even I, as loquacious as I am, occasionally make a verbal misstep.

But can someone, anyone (Mary? Karl? Karen? Condi? Laura?) please teach him that it’s pronounced “noo-klee-ur” and not “noo-ku-lar,” and make him practice for a few minutes a day until he can get it consistently right, particularly when standing next to the President of Russia? It’s driving me right up the wall.

[Update]

A reader correctly points out that “Jimmy Carter couldn’t pronounce it either, and he was a nuclear engineer.”

This is true–I remember that. But maybe he wasn’t–maybe he was a nucular engineer. Is it some kind of southern thang?

Truly, as I said, I’m ecstatic that Bush is President instead of Gore or Clinton, and this is not a slam at his intelligence (he at least graduated from graduate school). I just wish that he could get this one right, since it’s a very common word lately.

It’s Nu-clee-ar, Dammit!

Look, I’m eternally grateful that George Bush won instead of Al Gore, though I didn’t vote for him (of course, I didn’t vote for Gore either…). And I’ve always thought that picking on his elocution by the likes of Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live was silly, counterproductive, and not all that funny (the media apparently misunderestimated his strategery). And even I, as loquacious as I am, occasionally make a verbal misstep.

But can someone, anyone (Mary? Karl? Karen? Condi? Laura?) please teach him that it’s pronounced “noo-klee-ur” and not “noo-ku-lar,” and make him practice for a few minutes a day until he can get it consistently right, particularly when standing next to the President of Russia? It’s driving me right up the wall.

[Update]

A reader correctly points out that “Jimmy Carter couldn’t pronounce it either, and he was a nuclear engineer.”

This is true–I remember that. But maybe he wasn’t–maybe he was a nucular engineer. Is it some kind of southern thang?

Truly, as I said, I’m ecstatic that Bush is President instead of Gore or Clinton, and this is not a slam at his intelligence (he at least graduated from graduate school). I just wish that he could get this one right, since it’s a very common word lately.

It’s Nu-clee-ar, Dammit!

Look, I’m eternally grateful that George Bush won instead of Al Gore, though I didn’t vote for him (of course, I didn’t vote for Gore either…). And I’ve always thought that picking on his elocution by the likes of Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live was silly, counterproductive, and not all that funny (the media apparently misunderestimated his strategery). And even I, as loquacious as I am, occasionally make a verbal misstep.

But can someone, anyone (Mary? Karl? Karen? Condi? Laura?) please teach him that it’s pronounced “noo-klee-ur” and not “noo-ku-lar,” and make him practice for a few minutes a day until he can get it consistently right, particularly when standing next to the President of Russia? It’s driving me right up the wall.

[Update]

A reader correctly points out that “Jimmy Carter couldn’t pronounce it either, and he was a nuclear engineer.”

This is true–I remember that. But maybe he wasn’t–maybe he was a nucular engineer. Is it some kind of southern thang?

Truly, as I said, I’m ecstatic that Bush is President instead of Gore or Clinton, and this is not a slam at his intelligence (he at least graduated from graduate school). I just wish that he could get this one right, since it’s a very common word lately.

Kabul Liberated

Apparently dead Taliban soldiers are left lying in the dust, or hanging from trees like ornaments in an early Christmas (or more likely, Ramadan) celebration. For the first time in years, women are walking with each other, and by themselves, without the accompaniment of men, and some are even unburdening themselves of their burqas. The local barbers are doing a land-office business shaving the beards of the men, many of whom claim that they shave not because they dislike beards, but as a final one-finger salute to the recently departed, but not lamented, Taliban. Music is playing, and TVs are being dug up from gardens, and are once again showing such devout Islamic fare as “Titanic.”

Shades of Paris in 1944.

But Mary Robinson is still whining and wringing her hands about potential human rights abuses…

More XCOR Coverage

Nothing really new here, but AP has picked up the XCOR story, and they have it generally right, which is always a welcome surprise when it comes to stories about space or science (or almost anything else, come to think of it). I think I actually talked to this reporter for a couple minutes myself after the flight.

Moi?

I am wounded to the core of my fragile being that Professor Reynolds would accuse me of sending him “off-color” jokes via email about the recent ceramic-penis-napping caper in Colorado. He must have somehow simply mistaken my genuine curiousity for something much more crude and nefarious.

I simply asked him if, in their fervent desire to find the culprit, he thought that the Boulder librarians might hire a private dick. You know, one possessing the most straight and upright character…

You, the gentle reader, may now judge for yourself.

Shake and Shake The Catsup Bottle

OK, I give up, American media. Which is it? First you’re frustrated because we’re in a “quagmire” (oh, we know, you’d never say such a thing–it’s just that some unnamed “others” are starting to use the word). And besides, those horrible Northern Alliance types (who just a couple of days ago you sagely informed us were undisciplined, and still using actual (gasp!) horses for cavalry) were incapable of mounting a serious offensive against the battle-toughened, death-seeking, fanatical, unbeatable Taliban. And our bombing was having little effect.

But wait! Now, somehow, those incompetent NA types seem to have those supermen Taliban invincible warriors on the, well… run. And now you’re not happy about that, because as I type this, you’re complaining because we haven’t yet put together a “broad-based government” to replace them, and of course, it would be worse to let the NA take Kabul, when we could let those humanitarian souls, the Taliban, continue to hold it.

Let’s face a few facts here. First of all, no, the Northern Alliance are not a bunch of Sunday School teachers. When it comes to enlightened democracy and western values, they leave much to be desired, as they’ve demonstrated in their past behavior. But is anyone really going to argue that they’re worse than the Taliban? A general in (I think, WW II) once said crudely, but accurately, that “war is a set of shitty choices.” No, it’s not ideal to let the Northern Alliance take Kabul, but it’s preferable to allowing the Taliban to keep it, particularly if its falling maintains the momentum of deteriorating morale of their fighters, and that of those idiots who would go to Afghanistan to fight beside them. We have time, eternity even, to fix whatever problems are incurred by a takeover by the NA.

Second, wars are not smooth, predictable affairs. They are chaotic, and catastrophic, in the mathematical sense. One can pound a position for days, or even weeks, and think it impregnable, when it suddenly, inexplicably crumbles. So it is not surprising to anyone familiar with military history (which lets out most of the modern press corps) that a military campaign can seem bogged down–even in a “quagmire”–and suddenly see the tide turn. To bring it down to a level that even a journalist can understand, having experienced it in some soda shop or diner, there was an old and simple poem that I remember from childhood (perhaps by Ogden Nash?).

Shake and shake the catsup bottle

None will come, and then a lot’ll

Apparently, we’ve finally shaken the catsup bottle enough in Afghanistan.

A New Beginning

It was an improbable-looking harbinger of a new age in space.

Tiny, white, at the east end of the Mojave Airport runway, it looked fragile and miniscule next to the support truck, and surrounded by busy ground crew, readying it for its upcoming public debut. Finally, they moved away, leaving the pilot, Dick Rutan, in the cockpit. The Long-EZ chase plane approached it from the rear at a couple hundred feet, and we could see the sudden shimmering of heat in the cool desert air over the craft as two toggle switches were flicked in the cramped cockpit, and twin engines of the XCOR Aerospace EZ-Rocket were lit.

It took it no time at all to start heading west into the gusting wind, its long wings wobbling tentatively as it was buffeted by the ever-shifting forces of the invisible medium in which it was about to take flight. About the time it was almost level with us, a few seconds after we first heard the roar of its engines, Rutan rotated the nose, and it almost leaped off the runway. The sound was similar to that of a jet, of which there are many in Mojave, and loud, though not as loud as, say, a fighter on afterburners.

It started to climb, more rapidly than I’ve ever seen any Long-EZ ascend–the chase plane couldn’t keep up with it. It made a slow turn to the left, still climbing at a seemingly-impossible, ever-steeper angle as the propellant load rapidly decreased and its acceleration increased, until it finally leveled out at what appeared to be several thousand feet, and the chase plane eventually caught up with it, albeit at a lower altitude.

There were some scattered clouds at altitude, and we occasionally lost the planes in them. But they were scattered only, and we eventually reacquired the object of our momentary devotion. As it headed back west over our heads, we could hear the engines start to sputter as they became starved for oxygen, and then a sudden eerie silence as the rocket engines were shut down, and the altitude was too great to hear the faithful pistons of the chase plane.

The two planes made slow, beautiful circles over the airport, gently spiraling down over a period of several minutes until, finally, as they approached the east end of the runway, they dropped gear, made a final sharp left bank, lined up and gently touched down, buffeted once more by the capricious gusting winds. The Long-EZ braked and taxied back over to the viewing area, and the EZ-Rocket slowed to a stop at the end of the runway, to be towed back to the waiting crowd.

OK, I know. You’re asking, why is this a big deal? We are (literally) in a war to save western civilization. Millions are starving in the world. Millions (often the same millions) live in depradation and slavery. An airplane just crashed in Queens, and we don’t know why. So just why am I wasting bandwidth talking about a home-built airplane that has a couple little (400-lbf thrust each) lox-alcohol rocket engines installed where the pusher prop used to be?

To ask that question is, to me, akin to asking, what was the big deal about the fact that a couple bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio put a crude gasoline engine and propeller on a big kite, and managed to controllably get it off the ground, for a shorter distance than the wing span of a Boeing 747, almost a hundred years ago?

First of all, I think that space is important, for lots of reasons, but primarily for its potential for future human freedom. But I’m not going to argue that here–I’ll just assume that people who read this weblog agree.

As I pointed out in my recent disquisition on the wrong-headed Economist editorial of a couple of weeks ago, what is keeping us from getting into space in the way that many of us want is its unaffordability to any but governments. And what is keeping it unaffordable is the fact that only governments do it, and they don’t do very much of it, and when you don’t do very much of something, the unit costs get very high.

While we need technology development, we don’t need it in the way that NASA likes to think (with billion-dollar failures like X-33, to develop unobtainium, and fancy new propulsion systems). The only technology that we need is to integrate what we have in hand into actual vehicles, and learn how it works, and what doesn’t work, and fly it, day in and day out, and accumulate hours on engines and airframes, just the way we do with airplanes.

XCOR Aerospace is doing just that.

And, I should add, our need for technology development is nowhere as intense as our need for market development, and sensible FAA regulations, and a rational (as opposed to the “Right Stuff”) approach to space operations. What XCOR Aerospace (and other companies–I don’t mean to slight anyone, but I am writing about the XCOR rollout here) is doing will contribute to that also, in a way that NASA is not, and cannot.

While EZ-Rocket doesn’t fly high, or fast–unlike NASA’s reusable rocket programs–it actually flies. And in fact, though it doesn’t fly particularly high, or fast, it is a testament to the neglect of this field that, had XCOR bothered to call the appropriate French certification agency to have them witness today’s flight, they would have simultaneously awarded it the new world’s records for height, speed, and time to climb for a rocket plane.

It not only flies, but it can, given small amounts of money (equivalent to just a fraction of the overruns on programs like X-34 and X-33), fly every day, or twice a day, for mere hundreds of dollars per flight. And the experience developed from it can lead to bigger, faster rocket planes, that can also fly every day, or twice or thrice a day, and teach us how to fly rocket planes, and by selling experiment time, or even (heaven forfend!) rides to wealthy people who want a thrill, make a little money while doing it. We may have rocket racing competitions, sponsored by ESPN, or the Xtreme Sports Channel, or Pratt & Whitney.

And the records will get faster, and higher, and the revenues will grow, until we are offering rides to orbit, and people (with fortunes less than Bill Gates and Larry Ellison) are buying. And then some crazy fool will develop a space suit, and haul up enough parts to build a space hotel, and we’ll offer week-long stays, instead of barn-storming joy rides. And someone else will actually rent space in the hotel and perhaps do some research, or figure out how to build something bigger, like a Mars mission vehicle, that can be afforded by the Planetary Society, or the Mars Society, or even the (renamed?) National Geographic Society.

Why isn’t NASA doing this? They are institutionally incapable of it. NASA gets its funding, unfortunately, not to get us into space, but to maintain the jobs base in places like Houston, and Huntsville, and Cocoa Beach, and Huntington Beach. And even if NASA wanted to do something like this, and the Congress agreed to fund it, they still couldn’t–there are too many government procurement regulations, and budget cycles, and fragile ricebowls to be protected. NASA can’t do this because…well, because, as Hayek and others have pointed out, socialism doesn’t work. Capitalism does.

There are two fundamental drivers to progress–greed and fear. Because we initiated our space activities in the middle of a struggle between fundamentally-incompatible ideologies, almost four-and-a-half decades ago, the focus was on the fear. We made some progress, but ultimately, and in a most politically-incorrect (but traditionally American) manner, we must now harness greed. XCOR has figured this out, and their efforts, as well as those who emulate their philosophy, will ultimately open up the space frontier for all.