Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moon shot

There doesn't seem to be much to celebrate in the news the last few weeks. Tragedy, death, mayhem--almost every day, a full house of unhappy tidings.

But right around this time, 45 years ago, some remarkable stuff happened. Stuff worth celebrating. Mankind took a few minutes off from doing dumb and destructive things, and landed on the moon.

I've written about this before. But there's a picture I wanted to point out:

Flying high. Really high.

At first glance, it's just cool in the way that nearly all space pictures are cool. There's a spaceship! And planets! Awesome!

But there's actually something really remarkable about this shot, taken by astronaut Michael Collins in the Apollo command module. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat... they are cluttered with selfies. Taking a picture of yourself is common and expected.

But Collins' picture? There's a good chance it is the world's first (and only) everyone-elsie. That's right. That single frame, with the lunar lander and the Earth, contained what at that time was every single person on Earth, living or dead.

The only person not pictured was Michael Collins, the photographer.

It's a photo that literally puts everything in perspective. And maybe embracing that perspective, one optimistically hopes, would lead to more news of the inspiring kind.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Color it... stealthy

Well, well, well. Japan's long-discussed stealth fighter program has stepped into the spotlight. A technology demonstrator, the Mitsubishi ATD-X, is no longer just a rendering. It's real, and it has a fantastic paint job:

Red-tailed and radar evasive. (photo from

The plane looks to be about the size of an F-16, and it bears repeating that this isn't a production model--it is for testing technology. In this case, radar-evading technology. The hope is that it is the first step of a home-grown Japanese stealth fighter, tentatively designated the F-3.

It's really tough to tell what the ATD-X is all about--beyond scale--based on the pictures. It has the familiar angles of a stealth fighter, designed to reflect radar energy away from the transmitter. It is probably just a single-seat aircraft; few fighter prototypes aren't. It probably also is not treated with any radar-absorbing material; there would be little point in doing so and then adding a glossy paint job on top of it. And based on the shape of the wings and fuselage, it's probably designed to be supersonic. You can't see the engine exhaust clearly, so it's impossible to see whether the nozzles are stealthy or even designed to vector thrust.

Regardless, this is a big deal for a bunch of reasons. But there are two big ones. The first is that depending on how fast things go, it would make Japan the second, third or fourth nation on the planet to produce its own stealth aircraft (behind the U.S. and potentially Russia and China).

And the second is that it would take away a potential market for the F-35. That would mean a bunch of money lost for Lockheed Martin, which is working hard to sell the fifth-generation fighter in Asia and Australia. Worst-case scenario for LockMart, Mitsubishi could produce an exportable fighter itself, pulling away even more customers--although this seems unlikely.

It's hard to say what capabilities the F-3 might have, or how they might stack up to whatever is flying in 2020 or beyond. The state of the art has not been static, and indeed it's worth remembering that the first prototype stealth fighter flew more than 30 years ago.

All the same, Japan has a capable industrial base and a deserved reputation for mastery of high technology. This is a big step for the country's aviation industry... and another neat-looking airframe for aviation dorks to watch develop.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy birthday, America

It's been 238 years, but you've aged well. And as always, the best way to celebrate is... Muppets.

Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

How to make a long flight... longer?

Mrs. Blog and I have been on quite a few trans-oceanic flights. When that's New York to London, not a huge deal. Read a book, watch a movie, eat whatever food-like substance is put on a tray in front of you, and boom: you're landing.

But Hong Kong to anywhere in the U.S. takes a little longer. Like 15 hours or so. The in-flight entertainment system becomes a necessity, because it's too loud to talk, too cramped to sleep well and often too bumpy for, say, a nice game of cribbage. And that system better have a wide variety of movies.

But British Airways has a different solution, suggesting variety might be overrated.

If you want, you can now watch a seven-hour, first-person, commentary-free film of a train ride from Bergen to Oslo. Here's an exciting preview:

... and by preview, I mean half of the actual film. Don't watch it if you want to avoid spoilers!

I guess it's the equivalent of white noise for your eyes. But there's something a little weird about trying to experience a train ride while you're actually on an airplane. And it doesn't do anything to make the food better.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Wise man"? Really?

The idea that we, as human beings, are inherently rational (see the "sapiens" in homo sapiens) is being stretched to the breaking point lately for me. I say this because a sapient being--or a society of sapient beings--should be able to process tangible, real-world evidence, draw conclusions from it and plan future behavior based on those conclusions. That's how humans came to dominate the planet, after all.

But these days, that doesn't seem to be happening.

For instance, there are mountains of data showing that the Earth's climate is changing in direct correlation with the amount of carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere. And if that weren't tangible enough, there is also the small fact of Antarctic ice measurably and inexorably sliding into the ocean... which will raise sea levels by amounts ranging from problematic to catastrophic in the next hundred-plus years. Tangible. Real world.

But instead of guiding humanity to action, this stuff has become a political football. I can't think of another area of science that is so settled yet "debated" (note: those are irony quotes) so heavily along political lines. Look it it this way: denying manmade climate change puts you in roughly the same scientific sphere as believing vaccines cause autism and just a notch or two above denying evolution. Is that a good crowd to run with? Is that what we want to base policy on?

Here's another example: guns. I could go on at great length about this, but The Onion, as always, is able to wrap it up in a tight little satirical package:

No need for a caption.

In this case, the real-world, tangible evidence is an ever-larger pile of deadly shootings. It doesn't get much more tangible than that. Yet the U.S. has done basically nothing additional to regulate the instruments of those shootings. To the contrary, public discourse becomes flooded with  sophistic arguments about how the shootings are caused by anything but firearms. (Quick side note here, touching on something that fascinates Friend of the Blog Pete: I do enjoy guns and military hardware. The technology behind them is brilliant and the tactics and strategy in their use on the battlefield is engrossing. Yet, barring a zombie apocalypse, there will never be a gun in my home.)

And so homo sapiens looks at his surroundings and shrugs, figuring it's easier to make up his own reality. This isn't the attitude that made our species strong. But it may be the attitude that lays it low.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A numbers game

A while ago, I wrote about a few "things"--mysteries and former mysteries--that were inspirational to a writer of speculative words like myself. One of those things was "numbers stations": radio channels that went on the air occasionally and broadcast a seemingly random series of numbers, letters or words. Although it is widely assumed the stations are for spies doing spy things, nothing has ever been definitively proven. Fascinating!

Today I came across an interesting post on Kotaku that seemed to push the numbers stations into the 21st Century.

Thousands and thousands of videos, uploaded nearly every day. Each one is the same, structure-wise: 10 slides of shapes, shown over 11 seconds, over various random tones. Nobody has a clue what the videos are supposed to be, much less who is uploading them or why.

Just today, the channel has uploaded over a dozen bizarre videos.

Here's the idea. If you're reaching out to your espionage buddies, using the Internet--and a public corner of it, no less--broadens the scope of transmission to, well, the entire world. Here's what the YouTube videos look like:

Sure, sure, sure. It could be a completely innocent series of videos with no deeper meaning. But that's boring. Instead, let's assume it is a series of coded messages about something super-secret, super-important and super-awesome in some way. If nothing else, it's a super-intriguing jumping-off point for a great story.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The right stuff

Like any era, the current one has plenty of grumbling about "those damn kids" and about how "men were men" back in the day. It's always been that way. And so it was when Bill Dana, one of the most accomplished test pilots in world history, died last week. A common reaction was that when men were men, you see, people flew by the seat of their pants and didn't care about no namby-pamby rules.

But that's not the way it was at all.

Flight testing has always pushed the limits, and always will. Sometimes it seems like programs took more risks back in the '50s, '60s and '70s, and I think that's true to a certain extent. There were definitely more risks, but that was largely a function of where technology and science stood.

For instance, we know much more about how extremely high Mach-number flight works, have much better computer systems, and have satellites that enable communications anywhere, anytime. The result? We didn't strap a man onto the top of an ICBM and send him hurtling downrange at Mach 20 in DARPA's Falcon program. That's good, because...

In short, we are pushing into more dangerous flight regimes than ever before, and can gather data without putting a person at risk. That's not a bad thing.

More to the point, though, guys like Dana didn't fly by the seat of their pants. He was an engineer with a master's degree who pushed aircraft as far as he could, and could analyze and explain what worked and what didn't.

Good flying leads to good photo ops (that's Dana in the foreground).

So what is the right stuff, which Tom Wolfe wrote about and Dana more or less embodied? It's knowing how to fly, sure. It's having the courage to push the aircraft. But it's also being smart enough to understand why it's happening (and why to follow the namby-pamby rules). And fortunately those qualities are still here in the 21st Century.