Wednesday, October 26, 2022

UFOs A Bit of History

UFOs are a hot topic right now. Is there anything to them except errors by people and equipment? I don't know. The new NASA panel looks like a pretty solid group of scientists, and Department of Defense is interested again. Arguably, with new hypersonic, suborbital, orbital, and energy weapons, it's vital for DoD to take a good look whether aliens exist or not.  

But they are not a new topic. Here are some of my notes. 

The U.S. armed services have been concerned, at least off and on, with UFOs since World War II. Pilots over Europe reported glowing fireballs or torpedo shapes following them. These, dubbed "foo fighters," sometimes maneuvered around the planes but did not attack (except in some wild rumors). They were widely believed to be some kind of advanced German surveillance device.
Not long after the war, the first wave of modern UFO interest started with private pilot Kenneth Arnold's report of nine shiny flying craft near Mount Rainier. (He said they MOVED like saucers skipping across water, the term the press picked up: he thought they were crescent-shaped).
That same year came the worst press release of all time, an Army Air Force claim to have recovered alien craft at Roswell, NM. Subsequent clarification that these were parts of high-altitude balloons only sparked dire warnings of a coverup. Annie Jacobsen's book Area 51 got national publicity in 2011 with an unproven and utterly absurd claim we discovered a Soviet craft crewed by deformed children from a Stalinist experiment.

UFO Photo from McMinnville, Oregon, in 1950 (public domain)

The late 1940s through the 1950s were, for UFOs, simply out of this world. There were hundreds of sightings (or many more, depending on who's counting). Some were by military or airline pilots, and the descriptions varied greatly, from saucers to triangles to zeppelin-like. A friend of my father's, flying over Japan during the occupation, reported chasing a translucent circular craft that outdistanced him. A famous early event concerned Captain Thomas Mantell, who died in 1948 while chasing a UFO over Ohio. An investigation concluded Mantell was chasing a then-secret Skyhook balloon, far above the reach of his F-51, and became so consumed by the chase he flew too high and passed out from lack of oxygen.
There was a flood of magazines, newspaper reports, conventions, serious scientific discussions, and pressures on the military, which seemingly did not know what to do with the subject and often ridiculed it. Still, some military leaders worried about advanced Soviet or alien craft, and there was a 1950 directive requiring reporting of unusual objects including missiles, aircraft, meteors, and UFOs. I don't know about what's in force now.
There were "contactees" who claimed aliens of many descriptions had talked to them. They became celebrities. I met one of the original contactees by chance in 1976. He was a nice, normal fellow, long out of "the business:" I was well read on the subject, but I would not have connected him with the contactee of the same name except that he had his old paperbacks on display.
Eminences like Dr. Hermann Oberth, mentor to Wernher von Braun, spoke up: "Of course UFOs are real, and they are interplanetary." (Pravda, on the other hand, told Soviet citizens that reporting UFOs was promoting Western propaganda.) In the 1960s and ever after there were claims astronauts had sighted UFOs. Skeptic James Oberg, originally a NASA engineer and then a highly respected freelance writer, tracked these down relentlessly and found they were of other spacecraft or debris the astronauts were initially puzzled about. NASA as a whole stayed out of the UFO business as much as possible.
The Air Force at one point in the 1950s made, then canceled a plan to put cameras in the noses of F-94 fighters kept on alert. There were a couple of reported cases of military pilots firing on UFOs, to no effect - not surprising, since the objects were likely balloons or astronomical objects. A missile officer once told me of his Alternate Command Post aircraft crew being seriously freaked out by a color-changing UFO that kept pace with them for over half an hour. The navigator finally concluded they were seeing Venus through a bit of atmospheric haze.
Speaking of missiles, there were and are claims of UFOs monkeying with missile command and control. As a former Air Force missile officer, I sympathize given the ability of these systems to throw up unexpected and strange combinations of warning lights, etc. but the aliens must have been able to manipulate encoded devices through buried and shielded cables without leaving a trace, and without any apparent point to it.
The Air Force created Project Blue Book, which ran from 1952 to 1959. It's been debated how serious Blue Book was about really digging for facts, given that the staff was as low as two men and the funding was insignificant. Blue Book DID classify a couple of dozen sightings as "unexplained." A contracted once-and-for-all study in 1968, the Condon report (The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects), almost entirely dismissed the topic, although some of the explanations were reaches (e.g., an airliner's report of a large "ship" which smaller craft apparently entered or merged with was considered "an atmospheric phenomenon on so rare it has never been reported before or since." Well, maybe.)
The military happily washed its hands of the business and considered it over and done with.
As we know, they were dead wrong.

Some classic books of the early years include my favorite, astronomer J. Allen Hynek's 1972 The UFO Experience. Captain Ed Ruppelt's book on his years with Project Blue Book is still available, as is the Condon Report in paperback form. Psychiatrist Carl Jung (!) wrote a unique book, UFOs: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, about 1969 (not sure when the first edition was), and Paris Flammonde wrote an excellent 1971 book, The Age of Flying Saucers, which put the topic up to that date in sociological context, which of course included Cold War fears. There are hundreds of others, and new ones are coming out like shooting stars.

Monday, October 24, 2022

New Undersea Ecosystem: The Trapping Zone

 The newly-discovered Trapping Zone is a strange place. 500 meters down on the underwater slopes of the Maldives, small organisms gather in huge clouds, apparently trapped by the terrain.  Tuna, sharks, and a host of other predators concentrate on them here. Scientists think there must be similar zones elsewhere in the seas, and it's a rich area for research.  Let's hope the government protects them so they are not also rich areas for fishing in an ocean where so much has been depleted. Educational use claimed.

Monday, October 17, 2022

An Idea Too Far: The Orion spaceship

Many space programs have been proposed and canceled since the Space Age began 65 years ago.  None was more visionary - and probably more impossible - than Orion. 

The idea of Orion came out of the national laboratory at Los Alamos in 1957, caught on with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), and was backed by the Air Force for several years.  General Atomics, a division of General Dynamics, also spent its own funds on the project, attracting leading physicist Freeman J. Dyson to assist with the design work.  Dyson predicted that “huge projects and whole empires” would come out of Orion.  Someone at ARPA must have thought so too, since the agency in 1958 put an initial $1M on contract to study the idea.

The basic concept was a spacecraft shaped like a short, squat artillery shell with a huge pusher plate and shock absorbers on the aft end.  The scale was enormous: the pusher plate alone would weigh 1,000 tons.  A magazine carrying hundreds of nuclear fission devices of yields up to five kilotons would spit them out into the center of the plate, where they would be ignited, vaporizing the propellant (which could be any inert matter available cheaply in large quantities, even such mundane items as ice or dirt).    Engineers estimated they could get up to 70% of the energy of the explosion converted into thrust against the pusher plate.  For versions with people aboard, crews of up to 150 people were considered.  The specific impulse (a measure of a rocket’s efficiency, abbreviated as Isp and stated in seconds) was estimated at anywhere from 2,000 (over five times what the best chemically-fueled engines could offer) to 50,000, depending on the design of the vehicle and the yield of the nuclear explosives.

Orion never got further than flying a three-foot-diameter model propelled by chemical explosives.  The unknowns confronting the project, as well as its potential costs, were staggering.  For a while in 1959, it was the only major space project left in ARPA after NASA had taken over civilian spaceflight and the military missions had been handed back to the Services.  At that point, no one outside ARPA wanted Orion.

In 1959, the Air Force took another look. Some Air Force officers liked the idea of putting our strategic deterrent on a space platform, out of range of any Soviet weapons.  One illustration showed no fewer than 500 ICBM warheads being dispensed by an Orion ship. 

At the Special Projects Office of the Air Force Special Weapons Center at Kirtland AFB, the overseer of the Orion contract was an Air Force officer and physicist named Lew Allen, later to become Air Force Chief of Staff.  In the late 1950s, the world had not yet grasped how dangerous atmospheric nuclear explosions were.  

In 1959, Air Force officers and physicists produced a study called “Military Implications of the Orion Vehicle.” It examined what, assuming the propulsion technology worked out, Orion-type ships could do for DoD in LEO, geosynchronous orbit (GEO), and deep space.  It was briefed to military audiences including the Air Staff, and a highly receptive General Thomas Power, then Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC). 

General Power was a solid believer in the importance of space to future Air Force plans.  He signed off on SAC Qualitative Operational Requirements (QORs) titled, “Strategic Aerospace Vehicle,” “Strategic Earth Orbital Base,” and “Strategic Space Command Post.” The concept of space-based nuclear deterrence was so intriguing that Power declared, “Whoever controls Orion controls the world."

Orion (image NASA)

In those days, what SAC wanted mattered a lot.  In the years before SLBMs and ICBMs arrived in significant numbers, SAC’s bombers made up the huge majority of the American nuclear deterrent.  In some years under Ike, SAC received over 40% of the US defense budget.  Power got Air Force funds to ensure continuation of Orion design studies, with the intent of launching a hardware R&D program when the design work was sufficiently mature.

When President Kennedy took office, though, his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, took a strongly negative view of Orion.  He limited its funding to studies only. 

There were plenty of reasons to be wary of Orion, even though the physics looked workable.  An Orion spaceship would take off from a pit on the Earth’s surface using small nuclear bombs all the way up through the atmosphere.  Even some officers who liked the idea of Orion eventually became wary of the fallout, literally and figuratively, of testing such a system in the United States.   With the October 1963 signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting “any nuclear weapon test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion” in the atmosphere and space, Orion became all the more problematical.  

A late version of the idea was to put a scaled-down Orion on top of a Saturn V booster, lofting it into space without any nuclear explosions (although still with many nuclear devices on board.)  This spacecraft would have weighed about 100 tons and would join with a separately launched crew vehicle in orbit.  Orion briefings attracted some interest from Wernher von Braun, but, in December 1964, NASA notified the Air Force it was staying with chemical rockets.

The Air Force was unwilling to fight for Orion by itself, and the project quickly died.  About $11M had been spent.  Nuclear pulse propulsion, using either fission bombs like Orion or cleaner fusion bombs, has been studied several times since, but without attracting any significant military or NASA support.  Orion, while it still has a few believers today, was consigned to the dust bin of intriguing but ultimately impractical space programs. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Sputnik 65th Anniversary

 Sputnik 1: October 4. 1957, the day the world changed.

On October 4, 1957, the 84-kg Object PS 1, as the Soviet Union called it - or Sputnik 1, as everyone else called it - rode a modified R-7 ICBM into space and into global headlines.  What happened next? Many momentous things.

R7 and Sputnik display at Museum of Flight (Matt Bille)

The Sputnik program's creator was Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, leader of Soviet long-range missile and space programs. Despite having done an undeserved and almost fatal stretch in a gulag for "sabotage," he was a Russian patriot who, like his counterpart Wernher von Braun (of whom he once wistfully said, "We should be friends"), had one eye on missiles and one on spaceflight. (No one outside the USSR knew who Korolev was.)

Korolev had an explicit commission to beat the United States to the first satellite. He was spurred on by a belief that a US Jupiter-C reentry vehicle test flight was a failed satellite attempt. When the initial satellite design, "Object D," was initially too big and unreliable to launch in 1957, Korolev's right-hand man, Mikhail Tikhonravov, suggested they instead fly the simplest possible satellite. The lead designer of the satellite itself was Nikolai Kutyrkin. The launch was a success, and Sputnik 1's famous "beep" - described by LIFE magazine as "a cricket with a cold" - was heard worldwide. (Object D later become Sputnik 3.)

As Korolev congratulated his comrades, saying, "The road to the stars is now open!"

Radio operators around the world tuned in and millions scanned the night sky. The satellite was too small to be seen with the naked eye, but the core of the R-7 booster had followed Sputnik into orbit and was spotted easily. This visual proof magnified the satellite’s impact. Reports that Sputnik caused panic in Western nations were exaggerated. However, influential American media outlets, most notably LIFE and US News and World Report, published alarmist critiques, which succeeded in raising the public’s concern.

Sputnik 1 sent shock waves through U.S. and allied governments. Missile experts correctly deduced the launcher was a powerful ICBM. The Soviet Union had announced the first flight of Korolev’s ICBM a few months earlier, but U.S. intelligence had been unsure of the announcement's validity. Now there was no doubt.  If the little sphere caused consternation among governments, it also excited scientists who knew that the Earth satellite concept, long a theoretical possibility, had at last been proven feasible. British author and space visionary Arthur C. Clarke recalled that it was "...a complete shock, but I realized it would change the world." The international impact of Sputnik was unexpected even by the Soviet leaders. At first, the official newspaper Pravda gave the launch only a brief mention. Only after it became clear Sputnik had caused a global sensation did the satellite earn banner headlines. A CIA assessment stated that Sputnik had immediately increased Soviet scientific and military prestige among many peoples some governments. Soviet diplomats and politicians made the most of the resulting admiration.  President Eisenhower reassured the public that the U.S. satellite program had not been conducted as a race against other nations and Sputnik raised no new security concerns. In private, he called his advisers on the carpet for an explanation of why the "backward" USSR had gone first. Ike refused demands from some Congressional and media alarmists for an all-out crash program in space, calling only for $1 billion in extra funding for American missile programs.  A consequence the Soviets didn't foresee was the effect of Sputnik on international law. Before Sputnik, the right of transit through space above a nation’s territory was an unsettled question. Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, pointed out that the Soviets had done the United States an unintentional favor by establishing the concept of freedom of international space. Not one government protested the overflight of Sputnik. "Freedom of space” was eventually enshrined by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  Sputnik's success gave Korolev vast resources to devote to his dreams of spaceflight. The price imposed was the need to keep the successes coming to maintain leadership in this new field. Korolev responded with new satellites, lunar probes, and in 1961 the launch of the first human into orbit. Sputnik also galvanized the lagging U.S. space program. With the official U.S. satellite program, the Naval Research Laboratory's Project Vanguard, still struggling, the Army missile team headed by Wernher von Braun was given approval to launch a satellite. After a frantic effort, Explorer 1 was orbited in January 1958. The Pentagon created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to lead its space programs and the post of Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E). Civilian space programs, Eisenhower decided, should belong to a new agency. On 1 October 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence. It began pursuing numerous space endeavors, including science and applications satellites and its own human-in-space program. Sputnik’s launch was the beginning of the journey to the Moon.

Want to know more? Read The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites, at The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites (Volume 8) (Centennial of Flight Series): Bille, Matthew A., Lishock, Erika, Allen, James A. Van: 9781585443741: Books