Tag Archives: military

343. Black Shuttles

Atlantis, first launch, DOD mission.

Regular readers will notice that these posts are coming later in the day.

During the planning stage of the Space Shuttle, some changes were called for by the National Reconnaissance Office. That is an organization which, at that time, was not acknowledged to exist, but which is the home of sophisticated space hardware and a big budget. Specifically, NRO wanted the cargo bay on the shuttles to be bigger, presumably to accommodate their oversized spy satellites. They got their way, and the money they provided helped keep the struggling shuttle program afloat during the hard early days.

We’ve been looking at the Air Force in space this week and NRO isn’t the Air Force — quite. However, the head of NRO has traditionally been an undersecretary or Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. So, close enough.

It would not be unreasonable to think of the Air Force as an organization run by pilots and ex-pilots. MISS was a program designed to put men into space; so were the Dyna-soar and the MOL. But none of them ever succeeded in putting Air Force astronauts into space.

During this period of public failure, there were secret successes in the form of more and more military satellites. One of the earliest class of mission was reconnaissance, and the Air Force/NRO success with unmanned satellites was the primary reason MOL was abandoned. Through the sixties and into the seventies, these satellites used sophisticated film cameras, and their findings came back to earth via film canisters dropped from satellites and snagged out of the air by military aircraft. After digital imaging came to maturity, that was no longer necessary.

Sidebar.      Just how successful those satellites were, and how rich the NRO is, became embarrassingly obvious in 2012. The NRO gave NASA two Hubble-quality space telescopes that they had ordered, but weren’t using. One of these is slated to become the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, due for launch in 2024.

At the same time that the Air Force, through NRO, arranged to have the shuttle’s cargo bay expanded, it began to build a shuttle launching facility at Vandenberg Air Base in California. To understand what this means requires knowledge that every space nerd had in the sixties, but which is never talked about these days.

Why do we launch space missions from Florida? Because it is the only place in the US which is both far south and on the eastern seaboard. Rockets are typically launched as close the the equator as practical so that the rotation of the Earth is added to the rocket’s speed — something vitally important when crude, early craft were being launched. They are launched from the eastern seaboard to provide thousands of miles of open ocean for first stages — or fiery, falling failures — to land in.

Vandenberg is situated on the western edge of the nation, ideally located for launching rockets north or south into polar orbit — that orange-peel path spy satellites need. Advanced Titans and Atlases launch from there as needed, without fanfare. But not with complete secrecy. It is a California cliché for a UFO scare to be debunked as “just another night launch from Vandenberg”.

The Johnson Space Center is in Huston because Texan LBJ was President when it was built. Orbital physics had nothing to do with it.

No shuttle was ever launched from Vandenberg. Shortly after the second classified Department of Defense shuttle mission, the Challenger was lost. Important secret launches were delayed by the hearings that followed.

The relationship between NASA and the Air Force had never been a happy one, and the Air Force shifted as quickly as possible back to its own resources. They used the shuttle to take up satellites too large to be launched by other means, and otherwise returned to using their own missiles, typically out of Vandenberg.

The Luke Skywalker picture of Air Force pilots in their space fighters has never come about. The closest to that idea is the robot X-37b, which we will look at in some future post.


The Smithsonian Air & Space magazine carried an article in 2009 on the eleven black shuttle missions. Since most details are still classified, the article is frustrating, but will provide about as much as you will find anywhere outside of alien-influence websites.

342. Dyna-soar

Regular readers will notice that posts are now coming later in the day.

MISS, Man in Space Soonest, was a USAF project to put a man into a capsule and boost him into space on top of a converted ICBM. It was cancelled, resurrected, and passed on to the new organization NASA, where it became Project Mercury.

Times were tense. The Soviets had launched a satellite into orbit in 1957, beating America into space by a few months. They added to the humiliation by beating the US again in 1961, this time with a man in space. Worse than either accomplishment, was they booster that was used. It was far more powerful than anything America had in service, or in development. A booster that powerful presented all kinds of doomsday scenarios.

Eisenhower had plenty of problems at the time. He was using U-2 spy planes to illegally overfly the Soviet Union, and recognized that it was only a matter of time before that blew up in his face — which it did in 1960 when one of the U-2s was shot down while spying. MISS being transferred to NASA made it a civilian project, and less objectionable. The same logic led the Navy originated Project Vanguard to be passed on to NASA, and also to the use of underpowered rockets to launch it because they were not military hardware.

Sputnik and the Soviet manned missions were on top of a military booster, rendering that concern moot.

NASA went on to success in manned space flight, but in the fifties and early sixties, that was not a foregone conclusion. The Air Force moved on to the Dyna-soar.

Project Dyna-soar (from the phrase dynamic soaring) had begun in 1957, when it was to be the next step after MISS. It was based on the theories of Eugen Sänger, who had a suborbital bomber on the drawing board for the Germans during WWII.

The basic idea was to send a winged vehicle above the atmosphere on top of a rocket, whether in a sub-orbital flight or returning from orbital flight. That craft would skip repeatedly off the upper atmosphere on returning, dissipating the heat of reentry, and ultimately land as a glider.

This sounds a lot like the Space Shuttle, but there are two main differences. STS was designed as a single stage to orbit vehicle, and it dissipated heat by shock waves while being protected by insulated tiles, much like the Mercury through Apollo missions had used shock waves off ablative heat shields. Dyna-soar was designed to ride into orbit on top of a military rocket and to lose its heat by skipping — that is, by dipping into the atmosphere, then bouncing back into space to radiate away the heat it had built up, followed by repeat, repeat, repeat, until cool enough to finally land as a glider.

That would make for a long, hard, bumpy ride. If you are simply thinking of reentry, it would be a unnecessarily tough way to go. To understand why the skip-glide method was so inviting, you have to project yourself back to dawn of the 1960s when rockets were small and space exploration was new. With skip-glide, a relatively small and not particularly powerful rocket could send the Dyna-soar anywhere on Earth.

When Alan Shepard made his sub-orbital flight, he traveled 116 miles above the Earth but landed only about 300 miles downrange. With that initial altitude, Dyna-soar could probably have circled the Earth before landing.

Dyna-soar was developed as a reconnaissance and bombing vehicle. It was, after all, an Air Force project.

Had it gone to completion, the Dyna-soar (also called the X-20 later in its development) would have been the most sophisticated space craft of its era. Unfortunately, money was scarce, and while in orbit, the Gemini could do anything the Dyna-soar could do.

Gemini was a monumentally successful project (see Gemini) that sucked up all of America’s attention. In December of 1963, the Dyna-soar project was cancelled.

Again, the Air Force had lost out to its civilian counterpart. It didn’t give up. The next time around, the Air Force co-opted the Gemini. That third chapter in the Air Force’s bid for space was told here last November as The Space Station That Never Was. We’ll cover the rest of the story – so far –  tomorrow.

341. Air Force in Space, Almost

Regular readers will note that posts now come later in the day.

See if you can find anything wrong with this sentence:

Throughout 1943, U. S. Air Force  B-17 bombers carried out raids over Germany.

Give up? The place is right, the time is right, the B-17s are right, but the United States Air Force did not exist yet. The service in question was the United States Army Air Force, previously called the United States Army Air Corps. From the beginning of American military aviation, planes flying from ships belonged to the Navy and planes flying from air fields belonged to the Army.

That changed with post-war reorganization. The War Department became the Department of the Army, which then joined the Department of the Navy and the newly created Department of the Air Force to become the Department of Defense.

The Air Force was new and hungry, and it soon found plenty to feed on.

By dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the United States had changed the face of warfare. A bombs, and soon H bombs, became our first line of defense against expected Soviet aggression, and it was the Air Force’s job to deliver them if needed. Within a decade, missiles were ousting planes as the primary means of delivery, and the Air Force became the proprietor of such missiles as the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman.

But not of all missiles. The United States Army developed the Redstone IRBM which launched the first two American astronauts into space, if not orbit. The Redstone was later succeeded by the Pershing which was a cornerstone of the defense of Europe until the eighties. The Navy developed the Polaris and then the Poseidon submarine launched missiles, which were probably, due to their stealthy deployment, a greater deterrent than the missiles developed by the Air Force.

Meanwhile, the Army continued to maintain some aircraft for support missions, and with the onset of war in Korea and later Viet Nam, Army helicopters became a major force in the air. Naval jets launched form aircraft carriers were the equal of Air Force planes. Soon the Marine Corps came to maintain what amounts to a mini-air force all its own.

It looked like everybody has aircraft and everybody had missiles.

The Air Force had additional, more ambitious plans. They intended to launch manned Air Force vehicles into space, first on top of a Thor, then atop an Atlas. The project was called MISS, Man in Space Soonest. The Air Force announced its nine astronauts on June 25, 1958. They included X-15 pilots Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, John McKay, Robert Rushworth, Robert White — and Neil Armstrong.

A month later, MISS was cancelled.

Two months later a new government organization called NASA was formed and took up the concepts pioneered by the Air Force. MISS became Project Mercury.

The Air Force, however, was not through trying for space. More on that tomorrow.

330. Dred Scott Rides Again

The issue at hand is constitutionality v. right and wrong.

My respect for the constitution is profound, but terrible things have been done in the name of constitutionality. Some of them are being done right now. (see yesterday’s post)

There is no question of the constitutionality of the move to deport undocumented immigrants, but a great deal of question as to its wisdom and its morality. Trump’s motives are unknowable and irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if he thinks he is saving America from an enemy within, or if he just jumped on an issue to provide a path the white house. The real question is — should it happen.

History has lessons for us on this issue. The constitution allowed Chinese immigrants to be deemed unfit for citizenship. The same was true of Japanese immigrants. Chinese were, eventually and quite constitutionally, denied entry into the US altogether simply for being Chinese. (see 306. White Men Only)

Andrew Jackson used his constitutional powers to make treaties in his removal of the southern Indian tribes. He also used trickery and deceit, but that is politics. American Indians living a settled life in agricultural villages, whose ancestors had been in America since before Columbus was a gleam in his father’s eye, were led by trickery and force to sign away their lands and were removed from the United States by military force, all quite constitutionally through the Indian Removal Act of 1930. (see 247. The People’s President)

Let’s turn the calendar forward from Indian removal to 1857. This was the era of the Missouri Compromise, which allowed new northern states to enter the union as non-slave states, while new southern states entered the union as slave states.

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia. His owner took him to Illinois and later to what is now Minnesota. Later, he was returned to Missouri where he eventually sued for his freedom based on his long residence in free states. The litigations passed through multiple trials, which Scott sometimes won and sometimes lost, and finally made it to the U. S. Supreme Court as Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Scott lost. Chief Justice Taney stated that any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the constitution. He further stated that the government could not confer either freedom or citizenship to non-whites, and the Missouri compromise could not exclude slavery from the northern territories.

All this in the name of the constitution. It brought anger, the election of Lincoln, and the civil war.

At the end of the Civil War, the 14th amendment stated that “all persons born or naturalized in the Unites States .  . . are citizens.”  That did nothing to help the Chinese and later Japanese who came to this country, but could not be naturalized because they weren’t white. (again, see 306. White Men Only)

And it does nothing for the Mexican-Americans who came to America illegally because the laws made it impossible to come in legally. If you read yesterday’s post, and if you followed the link and actually looked at the Permanent Residence application form, you know this to be true. If we native born Americans were required to positively answer all the questions on that form, three-quarters of us would have to leave the country.

I respect the Constitution, but I don’t respect those who misuse it. Trickery and deceit gave Andrew Jackson his way, but this is not 1830, and it should not happen again.

325. Exploring Challenger Deep

300px-challenger   300px-bathyscaphe_trieste

HMS Challenger 1874 and bathyschaphe Trieste 1960

Challenger Deep is located in the western Pacific about 2000 kilometers east of the Philippines. It is the deepest part of the Mariana’s Trench, which makes it the deepest part of any ocean.

March 23, 1875, the British research ship H.M.S. Challenger rolled out a line with a weight on the end to measure the oceans depth, something it had been doing throughout its four year journey. It was quite a line. When the weight hit bottom, Challenger’s crew had paid out five miles of hemp — a depth of 4475 fathoms in the measurements of the day.

Although cruises like the Beagle and the Endeavour had set the stage for such exploration, the Challenger expedition was rigged out specifically to study the world’s oceans beneath their surface. It essentially initiated of the science of oceanography. Our space shuttle Challenger was named after H.M.S. Challenger, as was the ship H.M.S. Challenger II which returned to the spot in 1951 and remeasured the depth using an echo-sounder. This time the figure was seven miles, not five.

Reaching the bottom of Challenger Deep remained impossible until two world wars, submarines, frogmen, sonar, and the invention of the Aqualung wedded modern technology to oceanographic exploration. A new invention by Auguste Piccard, the bathyscaphe, finally made very deep dives possible.

In its essential function, a bathyscaphe is more like a dirigible than a submarine. The crew is suspended beneath the vessel in a steel sphere designed to withstand great pressure. The skin of this pressure sphere is so thick, five inches in the case of the Trieste, that it would sink immediately. To prevent this, it is suspended beneath a large, thin skinned, self-propelled float filled with gasoline. This provides buoyancy and, since gasoline is a liquid, is not affected by pressure. Air tanks allow the bathyscaphe to float on the surface as it is being prepared for use. Once the air tanks are emptied, the negatively buoyant bathyscaphe sinks to the bottom — seven miles down in the case of Challenger Deep. The pressures there are so great that it is impossible to refill the air tanks, so the bathyscaphe also carries several tons of steel shot in open bottom containers, held in place by powerful electromagnets. When it is time to return to the surface, the electromagnets are shut off, the steel shot is released, and the now positively buoyant craft returns to the surface. In case of a power failure, the shot would automatically fall away.

The bathyscaphe Trieste was built in Italy to a modification of a Belgian design by Swiss inventor Piccard for the French navy, who subsequently sold it to the American Navy, who rebuilt it with a new and stronger pressure sphere made in Germany. Globalization, anyone?

On the twenty-third of January, 1960, the Trieste was ready to plumb Challenger Deep. The crew consisted of Jacques Piccard, son of the designer, and Navy Lt. Don Walsh. They boarded the vessel, moved down to the seven foot diameter pressure sphere and sealed the hatch. The air tanks were allowed to fill with water and the descent began. It took nearly five hours to sink to the bottom of the Deep. Three quarters of the way down, one of the plexiglas windows cracked, but not enough to cause disaster.

As they cruised above the deep ocean floor, Piccard and Walsh reported a bottom of smooth ooze and saw bottom fish swimming, proving that vertebrate life could survive such high pressure and eternal darkness. They spent only twenty minutes at the bottom, in part because of the cracked viewport, and hours more returning to the surface.

No one would return to those depths for another half century.

Trivia for the faithful: Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: TNG seems to have been named after the Jacques Piccard, or after his father Auguste Piccard and his twin brother Jean Felix Piccard. Different sources credit different family members with the name origin. Also, in TNG episode “11001001” a small, slow starship named Trieste is mentioned.

294. Let God Sort Them Out

Looks like Trump is at it again.

Half the country is protesting his latest executive order. The other half is sitting back and saying, “Keep it up! Don’t listen to those damned liberal punks!”

There is a larger issue in all this, no matter whether Trump’s latest move is brilliant or stupid. Arnaud Amalric said it best back in 1209:

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.

You’ve never heard that quote? Of course, you have – translated into English:

Kill them all and let God sort them out.

I first saw the quote on a T-shirt during the Viet Nam era. It was quite popular with a certain part of the population, especially in a war where the “enemy” and “the ones we went to save” were so inextricably intermixed. I later heard it attributed to Oliver Cromwell, and it did sound just like him. I finally tracked the first appearance to Amalric in 1209, but really, it is a universal sentiment.

You might even say that this is the real purpose of war. You can’t just shoot the German down the street, but call him a name, put him in a category, define him as the enemy, and you can shoot an anonymous Kraut.

If you are on the line, rifle in hand, facing a matching line of the enemy, how do you know which of those men deserve to die and which ones do not. You don’t. You can’t. And even if you could, you couldn’t do anything about it. 

If you were on a jury, deciding the guilt or innocence of a man accused of murder, careful judgment would be your primary duty. But in war, it’s a case of, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” It doesn’t matter if you are a trained and committed Seal or a kid six weeks out of high school, barely trained, lost and confused, drafted, and praying to be anywhere else than in line of battle – the moment requires that you kill, and leave the question of justice in other hands.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t just work that way in war. It works that way in everyday life, as well. It certainly works that way in politics.

 When you see a real problem – a true evil – you want to root it out. It is a noble impulse. You want to stop evil before it can act. Of course, you do. We all do. But how?

Pass a law, make a rule, change a procedure. and apply it to the “bad guys”. But who are the bad guys? If they have committed a crime, there are plenty of laws already on the books to deal with them. But if you are trying to keep a crime from being committed . . .

To stop evil before it strikes, you have to act on the groups that harbor the bad guys. (And if you don’t hear the tongue-in-cheek in that sentence, you aren’t listening very hard.)

If you are afraid of Syrian terrorists, ban all Syrians. That’s the Trump version. If some innocent Syrians get hurt, it’s not our problem – he says. He doesn’t say, “Ban them all, let God sort them out.” But it comes to the same thing.

Liberals aren’t any better. They just apply Amalric’s rule to different problems. They say, “We must keep guns out of the hands of crazies.” Okay, who’s crazy? Who decides? Try to implement a preemptive law based on mental health as a criterion, and who would we ban? Psychotics? The delusional? Patients under treatment for depression? Adults from abusive childhoods, working through their issues? No problem, just disarm them all; let God sort them out. And keep them safe.

* * * * * *

Actually, it might just work, (he said, slipping his tongue back into his cheek.) Since every liberal knows that Donald Trump’s supporters are crazy, that would disarm half the population. Since ever Trump follower knows that you gotta be nuts to be a liberal, that would disarm the other half.

Problem solved. Just declare all of America crazy, and let God sort us out.

The rest of the world would not disagree.

* * * * * *

P.S., when Amalric made his famous statement, he was leading Catholic troops against Cathars, whose interpretation of Christianity differed from the Pope’s. Amalric wrote the Pope describing the subsequent battle, “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt.”

Unfortunately, that takes the humor out of their situation, and ours.

265. The Last Day of Peace

Tomorrow is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the last day of a peace which American’s had clung to even while war surged across Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The next day came war, and after the war was over America found herself to be a super-power engaged in a cold war with the USSR. Nothing would ever be the same.

I had intended to write a post giving a picture of that last day of peace, but when I began my research, I found that it had already been done, and done well. Here are two examples:

Roosevelt to Japanese emperor: “Prevent further death and destruction”

The day before infamy: December 6, 1941.

There have been other last days of peace. No one needs to be reminded of the day preceding 9/11. We probably ought to remember March 19, 2003, the day before we invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that never existed. We might also consider Viet Nam, but there is no “day before” to a war we stumbled into one foolish step at a time.

The most poignant last day of peace in American history is November 6, 1860. That was the election day which gave us Abraham Lincoln. By December, South Carolina had seceded. By January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana had followed suit. By May the rest of the South had also broken off, and the Civil War was already underway.

As I write this protesters are in the streets carrying signs that say “Trump is not my President”. They haven’t seceded yet, although there are many who would like to. Yesterday I saw a petition for California to withdraw from the Union.

I opposed Trump. I could write thousands of words telling you why, but that time has passed.

Some of what Trump said during the campaign made sense, if you stripped away the racism, the insensitivity, and the bombast. It was no accident that people voted for him. We were all faced with choosing the lesser of two evils.

The time has come to regroup and become what the Brits call “the loyal opposition”.


And opposed. Oh, yes, very much opposed to the part of his message which was racist, exclusionary, and backward looking. That was the bulk of his message, but it wasn’t all. Not quite.