Tag Archives: science

618. Digging Up the Dead

I would love to show the excavations I took part in
but I have no such pictures.
This eyecatcher is an excavation of a
Roman site in London.

Last post I told about doing survey archaeology in Michigan in 1967, ending with the statement that suddenly, when the summer was almost over, everything changed . . .

We got a phone call from the University, and within hours we had packed up, left our base, and were heading half way across Michigan to Bay City.

The Sagnaw River runs through Saginaw, then northward about twenty miles to Bay City where it empties into Lake Huron. It is a major shipping channel which frequently silts up. In Bay City, a project was under way to dredge the shipping channel. An area along the river had been designated to receive what the dredges removed.

The dozers preparing to receive the outflow exposed human remains and everything came to a stop. The police came, but it was clearly not a crime scene. The remains were skeletons in what little remained of wooden coffins, surrounded by grave goods. It was an Indian burial ground.

Yes, Indian. That’s what they were called in 1968 and it was just a designation, like Dutch or French. It wasn’t an insult word. There were plenty of insult words, like redskin, but Indian was just a word. It still is.

Mr. Fletcher, who owned the site, gave permission to Michigan State to do salvage archaeology. We had two weeks to work before the bulldozers were scheduled to go back to work.

When we arrived on the site, we found a flat basin a hundred yards wide and a quarter of a mile long, of mostly pure sand. Those are “close enough” figures from memory. Bulldozers were impatiently poised to return to work.

The site was surrounded by dikes, perhaps twenty feet high. Once we were finished, the dredgers would pump a slurry of sand and water from the river bed into the basin, the water would make its way out through the sand dikes, and whatever remains we could not remove would be lost forever under twenty feet of fill.

There were four archaeology crews out that summer. Three of them had specific tasks that could not be abandoned. Our survey work could be done any time, so we were elected.

It was frantic work. The site, we learned eventually, dated from about 1750. The Indians were in contact with traders and settlers, both English and French, and the graves were full of trade goods. There were a lot of copper pots. Other than bone beads (well preserved) and furs which were barely recognizable, most of the grave goods were of European origin. That did not mean that these were westernized Indians, only that they had trading relationships.

We found a lovely silver cross, but that did not mean the deceased was a Christian. We found a flintlock pistol — or rather, a lump of rust that had once been a flintlock pistol. We found the remains of a musket, badly preserved; the wood was marginally better preserved than the iron.

One of the skeletons we found had a row of brass buttons down its sternum and scattered in the dirt in the belly area, along with tarnished epaulets above the points of the humeri. There was no fabric, but he had clearly been buried wearing a military great coat. That didn’t mean he was a scout for the French or the English (there wasn’t enough remaining to know which), although he might have been. He might also have traded for it, or have taken it off a dead European after combat.

Despite the hype about pyramids and Schliemann finding Troy, there is much that can be implied by an archaeology site, but much less that can be proved.

When I say skeletons, you should not picture the dead happy pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean. Bones do not last well in moist ground, and not all bones are created equal. Skulls and femurs last better than pelvi and ribs. The bones of the hands and feet don’t preserve even that well. Tiny bones hardly last at all. There were miniature coffins for infants, but they were pretty much empty, with maybe a few grave goods and a few flakes of skull.

I have to touch on the morality of all this. These were Indians buried by their own people. How would you like to have someone digging up the graveyard where your grandmother is buried? There are valid complaints to be made which I understand and have no intention in arguing against.

This particular case, however, was salvage. To me, it was no different than salvage of European bones. If during the construction of a modern building, a two hundred year old white folks cemetery was discovered in the basement excavation, the bones would be removed and reinterred. You may not realize it, but those bones would certainly pass through the hands of physical anthropologists who would study them for what they had to tell about the history of disease in early America, before being returned to the earth.

We were careful with everything we found because every piece had a story to tell. I spent hours drawing the remains in situ before they were removed, and hours with an alidade (described in post 586) making sure that the locations were well mapped.

We were careful with bones and copper pots, but we didn’t treat either as sacred objects. A pot is not a meal, and a bone is not a person. Everything went to the museum and the bones were, I believe, eventually reburied.

There are a few more personal bits to this story. My future wife was also on archaeology crews those two years, but not with me. She lived in Saginaw, and when she came home for the weekend during our salvage operation, she drove up to the site and volunteered to help.

When someone asks me where I met my wife, I say we met in a graveyard. Then I explain further. The following winter, she and I worked together upstairs in the MSU museum cataloging the results of the dig. Two years later, we were married.

The site was so rich that the land owner had it diked off. The dredging went on, but the fill went elsewhere, and the site was not lost. I spent the following summer there, this time accompanied by my college roommate. The site later became a field school, and my roommate wrote up the results as his Ph.D. dissertation. It is on line. The site ended up on the National Register of Historic Places, and has its own brief spot on Wikipedia.

Archaeology wasn’t an occupation I could continue, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.


617. Raiders Before the Ark

Ground penetrating radar used in survey archaeology.
I’m jealous; in 1967, we just walked and looked.

Anthropology has been a major part of my life. I spent five years in pursuit of it, and it forms the backbone of everything I think and write, even though my dislike of field work was pushing me away at the same time that writing was drawing me away.

When I discovered the field during the sixties, forensic anthropology was nearly unheard of and the tools of modern physical anthropology were just being assembled. Social anthropology, my specialty, and archaeology were the two choices for students then, and we all took classes in both.

My first class in archaeology was in spring quarter of 1967. The professor was a lean, fit man in his late thirties with thin blonde hair and a beard. He had great tales to tell. The class was taught in the MSU museum and there was a stuffed moose standing in the corner of the room. How cool can you get?

My roommate and I immediately started growing beards. I still have mine. In a miracle of convergence, I had a full beard about the time I saw them growing on faces all over campus. I had become a hippie, when all I wanted to do was look like Dr. Cleland.

It was an Indiana Jones moment, fourteen years before the movie came out.

I had escaped Oklahoma and had no intention of going back to spend my summers working on the farm. There are no summer jobs in social anthropology, but you an sign on to an archaeology crew, and I did for two summers.

1967 and 1968. Keep those numbers in mind. I was nineteen, then twenty. Keep those numbers in mind, too. Feminism was on the horizon, but I hadn’t heard of it yet. Political correctness, in those days, meant hating the Commies, supporting the Vietnam war, beating up hippies and draft dodgers, and voting Republican. I wasn’t politically correct.

The definition has changed since then, and I still am not.

Archaeology was an alpha male enterprise, in an alpha male era, and it was an alpha male time of my life. Sorry. Not bragging, not apologizing, just reporting.

Archaeology is hard, dirty work in the hot summer sun. It was much like what I left in Oklahoma, minus the manure but plus an intellectual content. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Like everything else in science, you spend a thousand hours of work for one tiny nugget of knowledge. The work didn’t bother me. Work is just work; I’ve always done it and I will as long as my body holds out. But there weren’t enough rewards.

My crew was doing survey archaeology all over northwestern lower Michigan. Our home base was Kalkaska just southwest of Traverse City. It’s a small town known for its giant fiberglass trout statue. The local young guys yelled insults at us when they saw us on the street. We were too cool (in our own minds) to be bothered. You know the drill. If there were any local young girls in town, they kept them well hidden.

We spent our days walking up and down the local rivers, looking for evidence of camp sites along the banks, or walking the shore of Lake Michigan for the same reason. Evidence of habitation meant chips of chert (the local low grade version of flint), pot sherds (broken pieces of pottery), or midden (trash heap) mounds. You had to learn to distinguish chips of worked stone from natural breakage while walking along at a normal pace.

If we found enough surface evidence, it was time to make a test pit. That meant a ten foot by ten foot square, taken down with flat bladed shovels in four inch lifts. All the dirt from each lift was tossed into a sieve — a wooden sided box with a 1/4 inch screen bottom. This was suspended from a sapling tripod and shaken. Dirt went through, chips, flakes, arrowheads, stone knives, or bits of pottery would be left behind.

Or, more often, nothing would be left behind and the test pit would be abandoned.

Sometimes we would be on public land, but most of the time we had to negotiate for permission to enter. The grad student who was leading our group spent more time making friends with local farmers — or trying to — than he did looking or digging.

So it went for most of two months and then everything changed for the better. It was about to get exciting. I’ll tell you about it Wednesday.

610. Time and Time Again

I love my jobs, both writing novels and blogging. Every new blog I write opens me up to new knowledge, often arriving in replies from the people who have read them.

Blogger and regular reader Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value replied to last Monday’s post on decimal time. I gave him a quick answer and then went looking for information because he referred to  Swatch Internet Time, and I had never heard of it.

Swatch Internet Time turns out to be a top down system, while the one the colonists of Sirius use is bottom up. No, I’m not talking about oligarchs and the people. Swatch Internet Time took the day and divided it into 1000 parts called beats. The Sirian system takes a second and builds up a system of terms from there. It turns out SIT was all about erasing borders, including time zones, to turn the internet into one endless, borderless day. It was more political (and marketing) than scientific.  After all, no matter what you call a time system, it is still daylight in India when it is night time here in California, and vice versa. Still, it’s a fascinating idea that I had missed out on.

Fascinating, but . . . there was already a universal time called  UTC, or Zulu, or military time, wherein you simply convert your local time to Greenwich Time, while pretending that Greenwich is never on Daylight Savings Time.

Further research showed that decimal time is a notion that has been tried occasionally, starting with the French about the time they adopted the metric system. It has never worked out, probably because we already have a system that works, irrational though it is. Our system won’t work so well once we are on planets with different day lengths and year lengths. It certainly wouldn’t be optimum in non-planetary colonies.

When the issue of decimal time originally came up for me, Swatch Internet Time didn’t exist. The internet didn’t exist either. It was, as nearly as I can calculate, about 1980, as a follow-on to several other things that had occurred in the particular universe I was writing about at the time.

I invented the Standard Year in Jandrax in 1976 with absolutely no thought, and had to flesh it out later in Cyan. It depended on the notion that Muslim countries would eventually refuse to let a Christian calendar stand for all mankind, so goodbye to BC and AD. The solution to that problem, in Cyan, was to reset year zero to October 12, 1492, the day that began the age of discovery which would finally knit the world into a whole. See 25. Columbus, King of Explorers. As part of the restructuring, months and weeks were dropped, and days were identified by the number of days since the beginning of the year, as in the opening words of Cyan:

From the Log of the Starship Darwin, en route to the Procyon system, S.Y. 594, Day 167

Cyan itself had a very long day and year, and it had no seasons. A Cyanian year meant little to the colonists, so people measured their ages by Earth years. The term day came to mean from sunup to sunup, and the human daily cycle of sleep and waking became known as a sleep.

Even these people, born on Earth and newly arrived on Cyan, had to make changes in the terminology of time. The colonists around Sirius would be refugees, fleeing the breakup of Earth after the Cyanian colonists departure, and living in space colonies. They made bigger changes. See last Monday.

These things occur by accretion in the real world, and also in writing. After I wrote last Monday’s post, but before any of you saw it, I had already had to add one more term, det, because my people needed a time unit longer than a dae to use in their everydae (not a misspelling) conversations.

Since then I have also come to realize that I have to also have to be able to put events into a deep framework.

On Earth, we would say something like February 12, 2019. On Cyan they use standard years and days for that, as in the quotation above. I decided that the colonists around Sirius would follow the standard year practice and set a certain dae as zero dae, then count forward. You could say:

Antrim was born on dae 348,278.

That is certainly clumsy for humans, but it is entirely suitable for computers which would be keeping all the records that far into a future world of ships and space stations.

To choose the zero dae, I will have to know how far in the future this story takes place. I haven’t decided yet, but once I figure that out, I’ll know how many daes ago they began to count time in daes.

There you go, simple. Clear as sunshine on a cloudless dae. Except in space, all daes are cloudless.

608. Decimal Time

Here’s something weird, but you guys are all weird enough to enjoy it.

I have a habit of writing novels that represent the future as I think it actually might happen. That may not sound imaginative, but I like making projections with a minimal number of new assumptions, and I find that it leads me to some very strange results.

Cyan was built that way. One group who showed up for a few chapters of that novel were a group of asteroid miners who preferred life in space. When Keir suggested they go with him to Cyan, they laughed at the idea. Their idea of colonization was a trip to Sirius, where there were no habitable planets, to continue living in space without the threats from an overcrowded Earth.

Shock and surprise, that called for a sequel — or rather a stand-alone novel moved sideways in the same universe. It will be called Dreamsinger.

I recently wrote a pre-prolog, designed to be placed just before the novel begins, which may or may not make the final cut. Have fun with it.


Just for Nerds: Decimal Time

Some people like to jump into a story and have all the background come out piecemeal. If you are like that, have at it. Move on to the Prolog; you don’t need to read this at all.

Other readers like to know all about the backstory. This is for you.

If you can’t make up your mind which way to go, you can always forge ahead and come back here later.

Home Station is a gigantic torus in orbit of Sirius. The asteroid miners from the novel Cyan chose to emigrate to the Sirian system because it has no habitable planets. The planet which lies in the goldilocks spot has a Uranian tilt; it is called Stormking.

Perhaps life could never have evolved on such a planet, but it didn’t have to. For billions of years, Stormking stood upright like any normal planet, then a rogue body passing through the system tilted it and went on its way. Almost all life on Stormking was destroyed, but enough remained to evolve into a planet full of weird and fierce creatures.

The humans who colonized the Sirian system don’t care. They live in space stations situated wherever science or commerce requires them. Human culture centers on Home Station which lives happily in orbit of Stormking.

Since these people are not planet dwellers, ideas like month, year, or day and night have little meaning for them. If they had commerce with Earth, or fond memories of Earth, they would probably have kept Earth time. Instead they are bitter refugees, happy to leave everything about Earth behind them.

Consequently they have discarded all units of time but the second, and have built up a new, scientific set of units. (The metric system strikes again.) Only seven of these units are used in everyday conversation.

SEC — 1 second — This is the same basic unit scientists have used for decades.

DEC — 10 seconds

DIN — 100 seconds — This is used where Earth dwellers would have said a minute.

DUR — 1000 seconds — This is about fifteen minutes.

DEL — 10,000 seconds — This is just under three hours.

No decimal time unit is close to an hour, but between a dur and a del, the Sirian humans don’t miss that Earth unit at all.

DAE — 100,000 seconds — A dae is 17% longer than a terrestrial day, which is close enough for human circadian rhythms to accommodate.

DET — 1,000,000 seconds — Used where Earth dwellers would have used week or fortnight.

There is no decimal time unit that comes close to the length of a year, but there is also no need for one. No event in space or on Stormking has any resemblance to a set of seasons. Human age is measured in terrestrial years, if it comes up at all.

There is some pressure to add a YAR, consisting of 350 daes to replace a year, but that violates the rule of making all units multiples of a second by tens. And besides, nobody much cares.


I wanted to do decimal time because traditional time is so screwy that I felt once people get beyond Earth, they are sure to dump it.

I remember the first time a student pointed to the wall and said, “Mr. Logsdon, what time is it? I can only read digital time.” What he was used to seeing on digital clocks was not decimal time, even though it looks a little like it. Take the world record for the thousand meter dash, 2:11.96. That’s two minutes, eleven seconds, and 96/100 of another second. Note that there is  a colon and a period/decimal place. That number eleven isn’t decimal because there aren’t 100 second in a minute — on Earth.

Let’s turn that record into fractions. One thirtieth of an hour, eleven sixtieths of a minute, and ninety-six one hundredths of a second. It’s crazy. The digital time on your microwave isn’t decimal either. Set your microwave for 65 and punch start. (Be sure to put a bowl of water inside so it doesn’t fry its circuits.) It will count down all the way to zero. Now try again, but this time set it for 105. It will count 104, 103, 102, 101, and then it will jump to 60 before continuing.

The whole thing is flat out nuts. No wonder kids are confused.

However . . .Now that I have begun writing the first chapters of Dreamsinger, I’m having a big problem. I can’t expect my readers to memorize this post before reading the novel so every time I say something like, “For nearly a del she fought for points,” I have to gently remind them what a del is. 

I think I may have just dug my own grave. Time will tell. (Pun intended.)

Oh, well, whatever happens, writing science fiction keeps you thinking.

595. Apollo 10

Apollo 10 CSM, viewed from the LEM in lunar orbit.

Apollo 10 is a mission that, from the outside, looks unnecessary. It was anything but that. To appreciate it, you have to project yourself back into the state of ignorance that represented best knowledge in 1969.

I was also guilty of underrating it when I taught middle school science. I called it the most frustrating flight in the history of space flight, which was half true and half exaggeration. I also called the Command Module Pilots NASA’s soccer moms because they got to go to the game, but never got to play.

You have to know your audience, and middle school kids are looking for excitement, not “slow and steady wins the race”. And certainly not “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

In actual fact, without Apollo 10, the would have been no moon landings. There were two basic reasons for this. The LEM had only been tested in low earth orbit, not falling into a gravity well and then clawing its way out again. And we had an entirely inadequate understanding of the conditions on the ground at the proposed landing site. We especially needed to fine tune our understanding of lunar gravity for navigation purposes.

As the NASA history website puts it, “a test of the landing radar, visual observation of lunar lighting, stereoscopic strip photography, and execution of the phasing maneuver using the descent engine” were all performed on Apollo 10’s pass over the proposed landing site. If you want more data, check also here.


On May 18, 1969 Apollo 10 lifted off from Cape Canaveral on its way to the moon. Thomas Stafford was Commander, John Young was Command Module Pilot, and Gene Cernan was LEM Pilot. They entered orbit of the moon three days later. Stafford and Cernan undocked the LEM and began their descent fifty years ago today.

John Young was left alone in the Command Module, the first of seven men who would fly around the moon solo while their companions dropped toward the moon’s surface.

Stafford and Cernan fired the descent stage engine to slow the LEM. There followed a long unpowered descent, a rapid flyby of the proposed landing site, and a rise back up to the level of the CSM.

The reports at the time called it a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, but it wasn’t that simple.

For comparison let’s look at a mission designed to land. At point A on the figure given here, the descent stage engine would fire briefly, changing from the black orbital path to the green one. At point B, a carefully calculated spot nearly half way around the moon, the descent engine would fire again. The descent from 60 miles to about 8 miles would have been in a flat curve, followed now by a very steep curve. The descent engine would continue to fire until the vehicle landed at point C. This is basically the exact reverse of a launch, as shown Monday.

Later, the ascent stage engine would fire, leaving the descent stage on the moon’s surface, and proceed along the second half of the green curve back up to the 60 mile level.

Apollo 10 (red orbit), on the other hand, passed over the prospective landing site and continued on.

This has always been called a dress rehearsal, so one would assume that the ascent stage would separate somewhere near the surface, fire its engines, and continue back up toward rendezvous separately from the descent stage. That’s what I thought for fifty years.

I was wrong. Imagine that. I probably learn more researching these posts than anyone does who reads them.

In fact, on Apollo 10 the descent stage fired again at point D (the red orbit represents Apollo 10), but it was merely a course correction, and the entire LEM continued up to the 60 mile level.

Apollo 11 would leave from the moon’s surface, starting at zero speed. Apollo 10 at its lowest point was at an altitude of 8 miles and a speed of 3554 miles per hour. Dress rehearsal was a considerable exaggeration. It wasn’t that reports were inaccurate; things were just more complicated than the summaries suggested.

It’s a little like science fiction novels. A two line blurb on the back of a 180 page paperback may not actually lie, but it can certainly give a false impression.

At point A on the trip back up for both missions another burn was necessary to get back onto the black curve. However, the CSM had gone its own way; it wasn’t waiting there for the LEM. The final rendezvous for the LEM and the CSM, which were at different places on roughly the same orbit, would be up to the pilot of the ascent stage, and would take an additional three hours.

At this point on all the moon landing missions, the ascent stage would be by itself. For Apollo 10, the ascent stage still needed to separate from the descent stage before performing the orbital insertion burn using its own engine.

That was the plan, but things didn’t entirely go well. Just before the separation, the LEM began acting up, corrected itself, then seconds later started a rapid roll. It was later determined that this was due to erroneous computer input. Stafford and Cernan quickly separated and regained control, but it was another of those close calls which could easily have led to a deadly outcome.

The crew rendezvoused and docked with the CSM, then returned to Earth. The ascent stage engine was fired again and went into solar orbit. The necessary data had been obtained for the moon landing in July.


At present, I plan for this to be my last full Apollo mission post. Everybody will cover the anniversary of Apollo 11. Everybody has already watched the movie Apollo 13, and I covered the other landings in 187. The Rest of the Landings. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind.

594. Into Orbit

Fifty years ago last Saturday, Apollo 10 left for the moon. As you read this, depending when you click in, they are/were part way there. The mission’s big events will have their anniversary Wednesday, and that is when the main post will come.

Meanwhile . . .

From the fifties onward, there were dozens of books by people like Arthur C. Clarke and Wily Ley that explained in great detail how  we would go to space. I read most of them — at least every one I could get my hands on. There were a lot of people like me then. A lot of them spent the last decades working for NASA.

Now our knowledge of the universe is vastly greater, and most kids today know more than the best informed knew then. Still, some basic things get missed, because “everybody already knows them”.

Actually, they don’t. Here is an example, which I need to get out of the way before I talk about Apollo 10 on Wednesday.

Imagine, a rocket leaves Cape Canaveral with rocket engines flaming. The engines only burn for a  fairly short time, for reasons of efficiency; then the rocket coasts upward into orbit.

Right. And wrong. There is one more important thing that happens, but rarely get mentioned any more. A second critical burn has to happen at the high point of the initial orbit (apogee).

A rocket heading for orbit leaves the pad vertically, but it immediately begins to roll over. It needs to gain altitude to get above the atmosphere, but it also needs to gain velocity horizontally, so its upward path is a precisely programmed curve that begins vertically and ends horizontally (i.e. tangent to the surface of the Earth). This tangent is reached long after the rockets have ceased firing, at apogee, roughly half way around the Earth.

Caveat: everything in orbital mechanics is more complicated that the explanation you will get from someone like me. Nevertheless, this should be close enough for our purposes.

Let’s assume that the orbital insertion burn did not happen at apogee. Our craft would have achieved enough speed to reach its orbital altitude, but not enough speed to remain there. It would immediately begin to descend.

Think of a high fly ball to center field — up, then down again. Same Earth, same gravity, same result.

Such a rocket leaving Earth would burn up on reentry. If it were launched from an airless body like the moon, it would end up in an elliptical orbit with its low point very near the surface.

Instead, if all went well and the secondary burn took place when the rocket had reached its orbital altitude, it would change from a sharply elliptical orbit to a more nearly circular one. This is the normal way things get done.

You’ll need to have this in mind when we look at Apollo 10’s “dress rehearsal” on Wednesday.

586. Slogging Toward Space

One of the things I have to offer is a viewpoint that reaches back half way through the twentieth century. That can be a problem, actually. I don’t want to talk about the good old days. Fortunately, I never thought the good old days were all that good. They were, however, both exciting and hard.

It has become almost cliché to point out how little computing power the Apollo 11 computer had, but there are a thousand other instruments which we take for granted now, which were also not available during the early space program. I used a few of them myself, early on.

Some of these instruments became fossilized into early science fiction, as in Slip-stick Libby, one of Heinlein’s regular characters. Slip-stick was a slang term for a slide rule, an instrument of sliding scales which was used in computation. It was only good for estimating to about three significant figures. I learned to use one in high school in 1966. Early Texas Instrument portable calculators made them obsolete a few years later, although you will still see them in use at Mission Control when things began to go bad in the movie Apollo 13.

Another nearly obsolete instrument from the Apollo era is the theodolite. I learned to use one in the same class. We took it out to the back lot of the school for some practical examples of the uses of trigonometry. We didn’t call it a theodolite, however. We called it a transit, which is somewhat less accurate. Real surveyors called it a gun.

A transit measures elevations and angles. You level the instrument on its tripod and align it to true north, then you look through a telescopic sight, with crosshairs, at a distant target, usually a rod with red and white inch markings.

(We’re talking sixties here — everything in America was in inches, feet, and miles.)

This instrument was used in surveying everything from house foundations to radar installations before lasers replaced them. It gave you direction. It didn’t give you distance. For that you walked, dragging a measuring device called a chain.

The dictionary will tell you that a chain is a unit of length equal to 66 feet, subdivided into 100 links. It may not tell you that a chain (of length) was represented by a heavy, physical, steel chain that the rod man dragged behind him — for thousands of miles during a career.

Today, laser radar does it all.

An alidade or plane table worked like a transit except that it was attached to a narrow steel plate which moved freely on a plywood table. It was used for mapping. You would slide the alidade around on the table, over a sheet of paper, take your sightings, and use the edge of its base as a ruler. It allowed you to  draw a map as you went. I used one of them two years after high school at an archaeological site in Bay City, Michigan.

To fully understand what a tremendous undertaking the space program was, you should remember that a line of radio/radar stations was built all around the world to track spacecraft in orbit. At the same time, the same Russian missiles which scared American into the space race had to be watched for. A line of radar installations (the DEW — distant early warning — line) was built across Canada for that purpose.

The building of these two sets of installations was an immense undertaking. Even before the first foundation was laid, the positioning of these instruments had to be determined to the highest possible tolerances. This was done by survey engineers working with transits and doing their calculations by hand, with rod men dragging chains. A slide rule might provide estimates, but after that it was paper, pencil, and mathematical tables — which had themselves been calculated by hand.

The word calculator first meant a person who calculated such tables. By hand.

These engineers didn’t all come from Harvard, or other prestige colleges. There were thousands of them, possibly tens of thousands, and they came from every college in America. Bear that in mind as we contemplate the present college entry cheating scandals.

Speaking of which — prestige colleges my &#^$%!  Math is math, whether you learn it at USC or Palomar Junior College.


I want to introduce you to a survey engineer you have never heard of. He is a distant in-law, a fine man I only met once. I ran across a decades old newspaper clipping of his obituary the other day, and it triggered this post.

I’m appending a copy of that clipping, minus family matters, to give you an idea of how the space race, and the missile defense of America, looked from the mud below. The gentleman’s name was William Mussetter.


Mr. Mussetter graduated from Willmington College in 1917 and also attended Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. He retired after working 40 years in government service as an astronomical geodetic engineer. He served with the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Army Map Services, InterAmerican Geodetic Survey United States Department of Foreign Services where he worked in many different countries.

Mr. Mussetter was a veteran of World War I, serving as a second lieutenant. In World War II he served as a captain and taught artillery.

At the end of the World War II, Mussetter received a call from Washington, D. C. He was assigned to head a survey group to be based in Panama and to work in south America, principally on the west coast of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia to Venezuela. This project lasted four years.

The Mussetters came home to Wilmington and he worked with the Ohio State University doing contract research for the U.S. Air Force. There was a need to connect the continents of the world, locating them with respect to each other, then to lay out guided missile courses from Cape Canaveral to the Bahamas. [This means during the early testing of IRBMs and ICBMs, before they began to be used to launch space vehicles. The same tracks were used through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. See 578. That Odd Spiral.]

In 1953, he transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to define the Earth’s parameters, its diameters, flatness at the Poles and other data. [We are talking about building the DEW line here.]

He worked with a survey team measuring the arc of the Meridian at 30 degrees East Longitude from the Mediterranean Sea at Egypt to South Africa, down through Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, Belgian Congo, Tanganyika, and into North Rhodesia; 4800 miles. [Many of these names no longer exist.] He also did some survey work for the Aswan Dam on the Nile River.

In 1964 he was sent to Antarctica, to Byrd Station, and the South Pole.

He had retired in 1964, but during the last four months of 1964, he worked in Peru, S. A. on a contract for a hydro-electric project; and in 1966 he was sent back to Afghanistan for three months, to inspect the work that was begun in 1961, and complete the Tri-lateration of Afghanistan.


All this without a computer. Imagine that.