Friday, March 28, 2008

Spaceships, statesmanship, forgotten history

After the Read More! A new entry into the private space flight market aims to halve the ticket prices offered by Virgin Galactic. Austin Bay thinks McCain should make hay while Hillary and Obama are pinned down by their recriminations. Plus, a video of a 90 year old eskrima master illustrates a long-ago art.


Aviation Week reports:

XCOR Aerospace has thrown its hat into the space tourism ring by announcing plans to develop a two-seat, sub-orbital spacecraft called the Lynx. ... "We're looking at doing four flights per day, and we've already demonstrated two per day with the EZ-Rocket aircraft," says XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. ...

No firm ticket prices are being quoted, but XCOR suggests the target is about half the existing competition offered by Virgin Galactic, which currently charges $200,000 for a ride on vehicles being derived from Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne.


Austin Bay thinks John McCain has a chance to manufacture an image of quiet competence and action as Hillary and Obama thrash in the mud. "While Clinton and Obama tread the political gutter, McCain ought to continue his global trek. McCain ought to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Green Berets training counter-terror cops in West Africa, destroyer sailors in the Strait of Hormuz, Marines on an assault ship in the Mediterranean, a carrier off South Korea. And he should smile -- energetically -- as the cameras roll."

John McCain's strong suit is national defense, upon which he may carry even those conservatives who are opposed to him for other reasons. And this fact makes the decision by the Democrats to cede the initiative and strategy of the War on Terror to conservatives even more puzzling. We take it for granted today that Franklin Roosevelt had no choice but to engage in a strategy of forcing Japan and Germany into unconditional surrender. But in fact he did not have to. He could have opted for a far less aggressive strategy aimed at achieving the bare minimum required to obtained redress for Pearl Harbor. But Roosevelt's decision to take the initiative shaped the world for decades.


The swordmaster Antonio "Tatang" Illustrismo died in 1997. HIs Wikipedia bio says:

Born in Bagong, Bantayan, Cebu in 1904. As a boy he studied eskrima from his father. At the age of nine he decided to travel to the United States, and stowed away on a boat he thought was headed for America. In actuality, he arrived in Mindanao, in the southern Philippine islands. Antonio Alulud Ilustrisimo was one of the most well respected eskrimadors of the Philippines; He is famed for winning countless duels and street encounters, as well as serving as a guerrilla against the invading Japanese forces during World War II. GM Ilustrisimo was never defeated in combat, and earnt great respect as a result of his brave exploits against the Japanese.

An interview given shortly before his death indicates he haunted the very same Tondo dockside area that I knew so well. Here's a random event in his life which is absolutely consistent with my memories of Tondo. Tatang recalls, "In the early 50s, I had a real fight, not an arranged match, with a man called Doming here on Dock 8. He had a knife and I picked up a short piece of pipe from the ground. He died from a blow to the head with that pipe."

The origins of the "swordmaster" reflects the informal, unstructured background from which he hailed. He learned his blade skills, not in some exotic ninja academy with mysterious monks and rituals, but from his father, grandfather and uncles in the dirt-poor Visayas. And unlike cinematic swordfighting gurus, the impoverished swordmasters of the Visayas did things like become professional seamen to earn a living. Tatang was a sailor for 35 years.

The interview provides a few fleeting glimpses into the life he led. The story is told, for example, about how he passed through a mass melee of gangsters hacking away at each other a la the Gangs of New York in the same way that Moses passed through the parted Red Sea. No one wanted to come within striking distance of him.

There are tantalizing hints of a Southeast Asian-wide underground prizefight scene in which Tatang became involved. "I had fights in Singapore and in Jakarta with good players. The toughest one was in Singapore. I cut him across the right wrist and won the fight, and $5000. I also fought in Calcutta, and broke that mans right arm." Tatang killed seven Japanese soldiers during World War 2 with the blade.

There are vast unrecorded swathes of history that will never be written down. The picaresque stories for example, of the penitentiaries at Muntinglupa, Davao and Old Bilibid have never been captured, though they would rival (I daresay) the tales of the Pirates of the Caribbean. Quaint customs, prodigious riots, daredevil escapes, moments of tragedy and low comedy, legal perfidy and religious conversion. A whole linguistic world to describe the jailbird experience rantso, tarima, bastonero, brigada. I'm sure Tatang, though not obviously a jailbird, would have known every word in the lexicon.

All the denizens of this world partook of a shared sense that their life was a cosmic joke and understood good, evil, salvation and damnation in that context. Imagine a group of shirtless men drinking prison moonshine and plucking away at a guitar. The whole scene would be suffused with the sickening smell of argo soap, a kind of corrosive detergent that has been institutionally part of low-life scenery for unknown decades. And the men sing the song of those doomed to be forgotten. The one thing that all prisoners know is that the visits become fewer until finally they stop altogether.

The days pass
The leaves of the calendar fall
If you forget me and take away your hand
Go ahead, but to forget you is more than I can stand.

You can see somewhat of this self-deprecation in the video that follows, with its bad production values and cheesy background is exactly as it should be.




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13 Comments:

Blogger John Lynch said...

I hear books can pay better than blogging...

3/28/2008 06:28:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Listen to the younger swordfighter to hear a full-blown Visayan accent. "Dir is no klintsing on di ids." Translation: there is no clinching on the edge. It's all perfectly grammatical, but a riot to listen to.

Now go back and listen to the voice that was heard when the Iranian speedboats closed on a US surface action group. There are Visayan sounds in it. And that sound group goes right down to Mindanao, with variations.

3/28/2008 07:56:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

What was Tondo like? It was built along the swampy foreshore between the Port of Manila (anchored on the south by the Lighthouse or Parola district) and then crawled like a crazed fungus northward until it lost itself in the swamps of Malabon. On its shores close to a couple of million people must have lived.

There was a dense mass of rotting housing, which would make Charles Dicken's London scenes seem genteel by comparison, stretching from the edge of the coastal road about two miles deep and eight or nine miles long. Homes had addresses like "Block B Riverside" Interior. The "Interior" meant an address in there somewhere. God only knew where.

It was criss-crossed by a maze of duckboards, muddy paths, which occasionally opened into courtyards in which washing, cooking, knife-sharpening, card-sharping or the odd funeral could be taking place. If you knew your way around you could go from one end of the district to the other without ever once coming out into the open. You'd go under houses, between them, through them. Over them. It was great.

There were waterways which intruded into this vast, almost organic mass of humanity. I call them waterways but they were really sewers. And by night people would gather round fires, fed by scraps of wood and cardboard, at which they boiled water for coffee. Outriggers came into these narrow waters from all points. About a third of the way up this sprawl was the famous Smokey Mountain. A vast pile of garbage which burned day and night, fully 15 stories or so tall. The municipal abbatoir was hard by it, directly under a rusted bridge in last stages of collapse. That was one way across. The other ways were to scramble over the odd pipe or hire a boatman who punted his canoe over what seemed like a solid mass of sludge. There was no movement on the surface except the occasional bubble rising from the depths. And yet things lived in that morass. And probably people ate them.

Every morning thousands upon thousands of poor people made their way to the breakwater and performed their ablutions on the rocks, except when a typhoon was up. If you've ever watched the famous scene in the French Lieutenant's woman, it was like that. Without the Meryl Streep or Jeremy Irons. But with many a gap-toothed smile all around.

And that's where Tatang used to live. In the old Tondo foreshore. It was a universe almost unknown to the genteel classes of Manila. To enter into it was to travel some road which you never could fully describe in the subsequent years. It was your secret. But there was a saying that everyone who had lived there knew and only those who had lived there understood. Sa Tondo man ay may langit din. It's the complete reverse of et in arcadia, ego sum. What is means is that "even in Tondo heaven waits."

3/28/2008 08:23:00 PM  
Blogger dodson said...

I lived in Manila in the late 60's managing a branch of a US company. My salesperson in Tondo was a tough pistol packing woman. She would let me go to Tondo with her if we went in the morning before the really bad guys woke up. For those who have not seen Smoky Mountain and a city built on boards above open sewers, it is hard to imagine. Wretchard, I wonder if our paths ever crossed. I was a 26 year old newly wed who still loves Manila and sometime wish I had never left.

3/29/2008 08:30:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

The American Way:

Tall white man with a bullwhip and a hat facing down menacing Arab with a wildly swinging scimitar.

White man starts to unleash bullwhip to attack scimitar.

Thinks about it for a second, shrugs, pulls out his gun, and shoots Arab from a distance.

Wraps up bullwhip, turns and casually walks away.

No muss, no fuss, no bragging, minimal effort.

3/29/2008 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

The American Way, Fallujha Version

American soldiers pinned down outside a house with an un-known number of terrorists inside.

One soldier enters darkened house. Takes on at least six jihadists who are drugged-up and refuse to die.

Hours later, having run out of ammo, grenades, bayonets, resorting finally to bare-handed strangulation, same soldier leaves house alive. Six Islamists remain inside house, having gone to meet their Allah.

Lots of muss. Tons of fuss. True Grit meets the Right Stuff.

3/29/2008 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger eggplant said...

I would love to see space exploration commercialized. Nothing would please me more that to see the same market forces that created the modern computer used to advance aerospace technology. Unfortunately marketing gimmicks like XCOR's Lynx is not going to change anything.

Lynx is loosely based upon the aircraft "SpaceShipOne" that won the Ansari X PRIZE for reaching an altitude of 100 km. Someone claimed that reaching this altitude is the threshold of "being in outer space". I claim that the threshold of being in outer space is reaching Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

SpaceShipOne was an impressive high altitude aircraft. However despite its name, it was not a spacecraft. The top speed of SpaceShipOne was 0.9772 km/sec (Mach=3.09). The nominal velocity at LEO is 7.5 km/sec. Technological difficulty scales with specific energy, also called "C3". C3 is defined as one half the relative velocity squared.

C3 for SpaceShipOne was 0.477
C3 for a spacecraft in LEO is 28.125

The C3 to reach LEO was 59 times greater than SpaceShipOne's top C3.

The claims that Lynx will commercialize space is nothing more than empty marketing hype. I should also add that reaching Mach 3 is intrinsically dangerous. An unprotected person bailing out at that Mach number would be torn to pieces by aerodynamic forces. Lynx might(?) be commercially viable until the first accident occurs where the passengers get killed. After that, it'll be less popular.

The key to geniune space commercialized (and not marketing hype) is Cheap Access to Space (CAtS). The current cost to LEO is $10000/kg. For CAtS to begin working we need to get the cost down to $1000/kg. This number is achievable with current technology. However CAtS won't be sure bet until we can get the cost down to $100/kg. No one really knows how to do this.

3/29/2008 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Space Tourism comes from:

1. The fact that the number of space-related jobs has been decreasing for over 20 years and will go lower. Consider that in 1985, while we still were tricked into thinking that the Space Shuttle had solved the launch problem, even the John Deere Tractor Company had a space program. Today, not even General Dynamics has a space program. So if you want a job in the space business you have to be innovative. And as Eggplant implies, there is nothing more innovative than a scam.

2. We have not had a real manned space program in over 30 years. The Shuttle was like endlessly rerunning the Mercury program with a larger vehicle. It was as if the Daytona 500 was being run with minvans full of people rather than racecars: interesting only in that the occasional crash would produce a larger number of fatalities.

3. A few missions in which super-millionaires bought rides on Russian spacecraft. A few people made a lot of money setting those up and that led desperate innovators to try to tap the funding stream.

I must admit that, as the last program manager of one of the ELV programs that was phased-out in favor of the Shuttle, I take guilty delight in the fact that the current and future main use of the Shuttle Landing Facility is to take schoolteachers on Zero G Vomit Comet flights using an old Boeing 727 – but the joke is getting old, folks.

3/29/2008 06:27:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

We have to grow up and get rid of our bizarre constraint on progress in the exploration and exploitation of space--- insisting that any accidental deaths of participants are an unacceptable cost, and require EVERYTHING to STOP until we can all be certain that NOTHING ELSE BAD WILL EVER HAPPEN!!!!

We don't place that absurd constraint on any other aspect of our culture.

We tolerate fifty to sixty THOUSAND auto crash deaths EVERY SINGLE YEAR! That doesn't even address the permanently disabling and dis-figuring injuries.

A few hundred folks per year in commercial airline accidents; a steady trickle of deaths from train derailments, crossing crashes, lightning strikes, falls suffered during satellite dish adjustments, suffocation from intemperately-gobbled steaks, and improperly disinfected paper cuts. Not a peep from anyone about shutting down those activities 'till they're safe.

Good God, people! How many fishing crew are lost every season in Alaskan waters, yet there is no draping of Black Bunting on a Single Red Lobster, Captain D's, or Long John Silver locations?

I'm sorry for the cheap attempts at humor. It's a subject that deserves our reverence and awe. But we do not honor the sacrifice of those who have been lost by turning our backs on the effort.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we treat crew as expendable. In fact, it seems at some level the factors that combined to doom the two lost shuttles could be said to have resulted from bureaucratic mismanagement, rather than too much emphasis on crew safety.

Look at just a few of the of the most conspicuous benefits that have come from the U.S. space program:

• extreme miniaturization of electronic systems
• Global access to radio, Television, & telephone
• Global weather monitoring
(Besides providing dramatically improved warning about hurricanes, this has substantially reduced shipping costs worldwide, by allowing freighters to plan routes to avoid heavy weather.)
• Computer processing
• Monitoring of hydrology, crops, ocean currents, ice caps, land use, cartography, vulcanology, animal migrations, identification of mineral deposits
• Palatable quick-dried foods; Tang®!
• Hand-held vacuum cleaner units
• The feminine zero-G toilet (There has to be an earth-side use!)

Anyhow, I'm not arguing that we should be sloppy in designing and deploying spacecraft. But I think we need to approach it more the way we approached the problem of aircraft in World War II. Try to make 'em reliable and functional, and in sufficient numbers that combat losses can be absorbed.

After all, this is a life-and-death dilemma. We can't allow ourselves to be trapped on this single planet.

3/29/2008 08:39:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

RWE said:

"... space-related jobs has been decreasing for over 20 years and will go lower."

The situation is worse than this. The age of people working in the aerospace industry follows a bell curve. In the 1960s, the peak of that bell curve would have been under 30 years of age. Now the peak of the bell curve is over 50 years of age. The total number of people working in aerospace is reducing as the peak of the bell curve approaches retirement age.

Now someone might say:

"So What! Aerospace is merely going down the same road as other obsolete professions like mining engineering and naval architecture".

That line of reasoning is incorrect for three big reasons:

1) Aerospace engineering is directly connected to national security, i.e. aerospace engineers are also military engineers.

2) Much of America's balance of trade comes from selling jumbo jets like the Boeing 787.

3) Mankind's future is ultimately connected with Space, i.e. Unlike the Earth, Space offers infinite resources along with infinite room for growth.

Mad Fiddler said:

"We have to grow up and get rid of our bizarre constraint on progress in the exploration and exploitation of space--- insisting that any accidental deaths of participants are an unacceptable cost.."

Risk adversion is killing the Space Program. Mad Fiddler touched upon the problems associated with the Manned Space Program. However risk adversion is also killing the Unmanned Space Program.

The main US "flag ship" interplanetary spacecraft currently under construction is the Mars Science Lab (MSL). Unfortunately the likelyhood of MSL failing on Mars borders on near certainty. Many of the people working on MSL regard their task as pure drudgery because they know their efforts are in vain (MSL will cost over $1.2 billion). Last week, S. Alan Stern, the associate administrator of the NASA science mission directorate suddenly resigned. The hallway gossip is that Stern attempted to terminated MSL but was countermanded by the NASA Administrator and then resigned in protest.

I will not go into a detailed technical criticism of MSL (it would bore most readers). The bottom line with MSL's problems can be summed up with one word:

Legacy

Even though MSL has a massive rover as payload, its designers engaged in the slavish reuse of old technology even though the old technology was often inappropriate for MSL's mission. Due to risk adversion, "legacy" often trumped innovation. The result is an overpriced monostrosity that is doomed to fail. To make matters worse, nothing is really planned for Mars after MSL. Therefore after MSL fails, the US Mars program will face almost certain termination. This is despite the incredible success of the two Martian Exploration Rovers (MER). The MER design could have easily been reused in an appropriate application of legacy (Yes! This is ironic).

3/30/2008 01:15:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

Mad Fiddler:

Well, we are already launching missions heedless of the risks, more or less. Worldwide, an average of 6% of space launches fail in some manner, ranging from some degradation of the payload mission to complete disaster. About half of these, about 3% of all space missions, fail to attain any kind of an orbit at all.

To put this in perspective, if this were airliners, at least 300 airline flights A DAY would fail to get to their intended destinations. For example, a flight from LAX to JFK might terminate in Oklahoma City. And of these, some 150 A DAY would “land” at a place in which there was no airport (this might also be called a crash). Would this be tolerated for air travel? I think not. But it is business as usual for space launch.

And it’s not getting any better, either. The average over the last 30 years has been a 6% failure probability, but over the last couple of years it has been more on the order of 7%. (The Russians in particular have had some tough times- most recently a week ago.)

One reason for this is the fact that the difference between getting into space and flying in the atmosphere is considerably more challenging than that between flying and driving around on the Earth’s surface. But the biggest reason for this is BUREAUCRACY. Some at NASA decided to save their Apollo empire by taking over a job they did not know how to do, and ruthlessly stopped all other booster development to ensure that they were the only game in town, just like any Organized Crime group does. Even after we lost the Challenger, the best we could do was a compromise: the USAF would make some evolutionary developments to produce a new booster while NASA tried to revolutionize space launch by “Getting the Shuttle Program Right This Time” with the X-33. The evolutionary approach worked while the revolution did not. But now we are still only about where we should have been in 1975.

3/30/2008 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

RWE said:

"One reason for this is the fact that the difference between getting into space and flying in the atmosphere is considerably more challenging than that between flying and driving around on the Earth’s surface."

This of course is true. However another reason is because most launches are done with Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELVs). With an ELV, the vehicle's launch is always its maiden flight. If a flight to London from Los Angeles always involved a brand new untested 747, I suspect the number of in flight accidents would be much higher. Of course, ELVs are still cheaper to fly than the Space Shuttle which is the root reason why the Space Program is in such a mess.

3/30/2008 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger always right said...

Sorry, McCain's 'major speech' left me cold. I know (in my head) why he did it and said what he said, but (in my heart) that's another nail, amidst about a dozen, against his trustworthiness. I don't see how he is going to stand up to the majority opposition views in his League of Democracies.

In the end, he may very well be 'better' than the dem nominee, however, a few more of these demonstrations of "I am NOT George W, and I am AGAINST the conservatives" will leave 'holding my nose' even less palatable than staying home.

This recent version of John McCain is not the same man as when he met with Reagan in the 80s.

BTW I was strongly against those staying home in the 06 election, so spare me the indignation, beseeching, condemning talks (‘you are surrendering to the dem side’).

3/31/2008 07:41:00 AM  

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