Summer Technology Notes

By Doug Magill

Some interesting end-of-summer technology notes:

When the Atlantis rolled to a stop at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, one could sense a collective shrug from Washington as the American space program rolled to a stop as well.  For the first time in decades, we have no manned spaceflight capability.  If that weren’t bad enough, we now have to depend on the Russians to take supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station.  Somewhere the shoeless ghost of Khrushchev is smiling.

While a good chunk of NASA’s budget has been hijacked by environmental correctness, the heart of the program – spaceflight – has been tossed aside.  Now, I know that the Obama administration is claiming that money will be directed toward commercial spaceflight ventures, but those are years in the making, if ever.  Somehow, with all of the duplication of environmental studies we could have diverted funds to keep the shuttle operating until a replacement lift capability and crewed vehicle could be developed, or purchased.  But, one gets the sense that Obama’s boys don’t see pushing the technology envelope as very meaningful, or important.

Millions of science fiction fans disagree, as do the military planners in Bejing.  The Chinese sent an astronaut into orbit in 2003, and have been working diligently on manned capabilities since.  And, like so many other things, they aren’t exactly telling the world what they have in mind.

An author once posited that future wars can be fought with rocks.  If you have the capability of controlling space, all you need to do is launch rocks at the earth of sufficient size to survive reentry and the kinetic energy will cause more damage than nuclear weapons.  No sophisticated vehicles or guidance systems needed.  The hardest part is getting the rocks to the launch point.  Of course, rocks can be obtained from the asteroid belt or the Moon.

Mankind has a future in space, but it appears that America will not be part of it.

Speaking of the Chinese, they launched their first aircraft carrier in early August.  There can be no doubt that they have aspirations to be a dominant force in Asia, and will have the blue-water navy to back them up.  While we reduce the size of our navy.  And, don’t think our allies haven’t noticed.

Meanwhile, the other Chinese – dba the Taiwanese – on the same day the Chinese Communists launched their aircraft carrier, announced that their supersonic cruise missile, the Hsiung Feng III, is really designed to take out aircraft carriers.  Lest subtlety be confusing to the people on the mainland, the background for the display of the ship-killer was an aircraft carrier in flames.

And, by the way, one of the strongest deterrents to Chinese designs on regional hegemony is the Taiwanese military.  It has petitioned the U.S. for advanced fighters to upgrade the island defenses, but the Washington wafflers are inclined only to allow them to upgrade the existing F-16s.

NASA still has the capability of doing some amazing things.  In mid-July the Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around Vesta, the 330 mile-wide dwarf planet over 117 million miles away.  Vesta is one of the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  The other, Ceres, is over four times larger and will be visited by the ion-propulsion Dawn after it studies Vesta for a year.  Ceres is of great interest to scientists because they believe it may be icy and have frost-covered poles.  Scientists have long considered Ceres to be a viable candidate for supplying interplanetary missions, and of even having its own colonies.

On August 5, Juno was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral.  The spacecraft will take five years to fly to Jupiter.  After orbiting the planet and sending a wealth of data to the space agency, it will plunge into the atmosphere of the giant planet in one last digital gasp of data-gathering.

This fall will see the launch of a new Mars Rover, Curiosity.  It is designed to explore farther than the previous vehicles, and search for signs of water, and life.

And, it is with sadness that we must say goodbye to the Mars Rover, Spirit.  Originally designed to roam for three months, the technological marvel has been transmitting data since its landing in January, 2004.  Unfortunately, it got stuck in the Mars version of a sand trap, and is no longer being monitored by NASA.  Its sister vehicle, Opportunity, is still sending data as it slowly makes its way to Endeavor Crater.

One of the more interesting projects to come out of the U.S, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a hypersonic aircraft.  Designed to fly at 13,000 mph, a successful test was conducted last year.  This August, a second test didn’t get much past launch as the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 separated from its booster but was then lost.   Once scientists get the bugs worked out this will be one of the most significant weapons of the century.

There was a very interesting article on the development of NASA’s wind tunnel in Berea in the current issue of Smithsonian Air & Space.  There were some difficult engineering challenges to enable its use for supersonic testing.  It is still one of the most powerful wind tunnels in operation today.

The mind reels at the realization that the people making the most money off of space travel today are the former communists in Russia.  The first space tourist was a Japanese TV journalist, Toyohira Akiyama, whose $12 million fee was paid by his employer.  He flew to the Mir space station in 1990, and became the first Japanese space traveler.

Helen Sharman, a British chemist employed by the Mars candy company became the second space tourist.  She voyaged to Mir in 1991.  Of course – wait for it – the London Observer came out with the obvious headline.

“Woman from Mars is First Briton in Space.”

Doug Magill is a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at


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