July 1st, 2006

#102: Four Day Fourth Weekend!!!

...and I'm spending it working on cars and stuff. I also have to install a backup sump pump. *sigh*

I've got a bunch of stuff to do. Maybe that will include watching fireworks, maybe not. I just don't know.

...and of course it's supposed to be HOT.

My four days of freedom end on the 5th. I work Wed-Sat, four days in a row.

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Jose Olé shredded beef and cheese chimichangas are good.

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Further bulletins as events warrant.

#103: Shuttle Launch Delayed--Ho Hum.

What else is new?

NASA sold us all a bill of goods in the 1970s. "Cheap access to space!" they said. The Space Shuttle was going to open the Final Frontier wide open and usher in a new age of space exploration!

30 years later--25 after the first flight of Colombia, and 3 after Colombia's final Icarus-like plunge from the heavens--space access is no cheaper than it was in 1976. Space is still the purview of the chosen few. And no one's walked on the moon since 1974.

The International Space Station? Don't make me laugh. Skylab did everything that space station has done, and for 1/10th the cost in real dollars, adjusted for inflation.

I used to be a hyper-enthusiastic supporter of the space program. I really did. I saw the first launch of Colombia. I stayed home from college and sat in front of the TV for six hours on January 28, 1986, after Challenger blew up. When I was 8 years old I got up at 5 AM and breathlessly watched the first picture from the surface of Mars appear on my TV screen, line by tedious line. When Colombia broke up on re-entry, again I sat in front of my TV for hours listening to the same facts over and over again, looking at the same unfocussed videotape of the thing burning up over and over again.

But NASA...NASA has not done us any favors.

In the 1970s they were so worried about getting funding for the Shuttle, they almost destroyed the blueprints for the Saturn V. They actually took the last (fully functional!) Saturn V and turned it into a lawn ornament. (I was watching Space Cowboys and I choked up when I saw it--what a waste!)

Given the mandate to get to the moon by 1969, they delivered. They went from "our rockets always blow up" to a successful moon landing in a relative handful of years.

If they tried to do that now, they'd kill a lot of smart people and get nowhere near the moon. And it has nothing to do with funding.

NASA is about employing NASA bureaucrats. It's that simple. "Space exploration" is only an excuse to spend taxpayer dollars and employ bureaucrats. NASA could be renamed the "National Alligator-shaped Surfboard Agency" and given dominion over certain types of water sports, and as long as their budget didn't change, the organization would go right on with its new mission without skipping a beat. (What would happen is that alligator-shaped surfboards would become a lot more expensive and heavily regulated. And, ironically, space travel would probably become a lot cheaper.)

NASA has ossified. They can no longer design, build, test, re-design, re-build, and fly rockets without an endless series of meetings, conferences, consultations, and discussions, all of which generate reams of documentation which must be read, signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, lost, found, and probably buried in soft peat for six months before being recycled into chlorine-free, politically-correct toilet paper. Forget going to the moon by the end of the decade; they're planning (planning! --and with a booster and spacecraft which haven't even been designed yet) to get back to the moon before the end of the next decade--2018--and they'll probably miss that deadline without so much as batting an eye.

I wish I could sum it all up simply, but I can't. The examples are infinite in number, and infinitely depressing. The X-33 program alone is rife with examples of NASA doing what it does best: taking a simple concept and turning it into a boondoggle.

An X program is pretty simple when you examine its basic concept. When you have an X program, you build a ship and you fly it. You look at what went right and what went wrong; you fix the problems, and you fly it again. You build a ship to test one thing and fly it, and you fix the problems, and you fly it more. You keep doing this. Eventually you have worked out how to do things that you didn't know how to do before.


You do NOT start out saying, "Okay, X-33 is going to be the replacement for the Space Shuttle!"

In the late 1950s the Air Force was experimenting with high-altitude, high-speed planes. In 1947, even, Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 faster than sound for the first time in human history. They learned a lot about supersonic flight with the X-1. They built other planes, culminating with the X-15.

The X-15 is still the fastest airplane ever built. It had to be hauled into the stratosphere and launched from a B-52, but it was damn fast. It went so high that it had to have reaction jets on it--even at the speeds it flew, the air was too thin for its control surfaces when it reached its design ceiling. It was a suborbital airplane, and it would never be anything other than a suborbital airplane. But that was all right, because it was an X plane.

X-20--had it ever been flown (one non-flight-capable prototype was built)--would have been capable of reaching orbit. Instead of being launched from a B-52, it would have sat atop a Titan III missile. And the orbiter would have been completely reusable, just as its forebears had been. The office responsible for the X-20 program saw it being used as a "space fighter"--it could have flown around the planet and dropped nuclear bombs, in the role of a fractional orbit bomber. The Air Force saw it more as a design and development program, paving the way for real spacecraft.

Ironically, Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin changed that. The space race was on...and the X program was canceled, and its functions rolled into NASA.

The real fundamental irony of the history of space exploration is that the space race actually hurt the cause. It gave a short-term temporary success, but at the cost of the essential long-term development. The Air Force's X program provided NASA with all sorts of useful data on hypersonic flight--they could not have designed the Space Shuttle without the data developed by the X program!--but NASA missed the most important implications and instead focussed on protecting its bailiwick and its funding, the lifeblood of any government bureaucracy.

So...I don't look at the launch of Discovery--or its rescheduling--with any particular emotion. The Space Shuttle has demonstrated its worth as a platform; it is mediocre at best...and the agency responsible for it is no better.

#104: Why I Sometimes Look Like a Lunatic

I did some shopping today. I was intending to buy a toolbox at Harbor Freight, but it went off sale. I wasn't going to pay $260 for it. $180, sure; $260, no. Afterwards I took Mom grocery shopping.

As I said a few (dozen?) entries back, I've been dubbing my Urusei Yatsura (UY) tapes to DVD. One of the episodes I watched is among my favorites: the Watermelon God episode.

The basic story is this: the crew go to a seaside village as a late summer getaway. They're relaxing on the beach and enjoying the day when Shinobu suggests that they smash some watermelons. In Japan, apparently people make a game out of this; a person is blindfolded, spun three times, and given a stick; then he must hit a watermelon which is sitting on the sand. If he splits it, the watermelon is enjoyed by all. If he misses, someone else gets a shot at it. Sort of like a pinata, I suppose.

When Ataru tries to buy a watermelon from a vendor near the beach, however, the man goes ballistic and tells them he won't sell them a watermelon on today of all days!

The man's odd reaction gets some explanation when we cut to a scene showing the mayor of the village consulting with Cherry and Sakura, and explaining to them that he would like them to see if they can help calm the "watermelon spirits", so they can avoid the curse of the watermelon spirits. For 500 years the village has had an annual ritual devoted to calming the watermelon spirits, who are apparently very vengeful. They want to avoid being cursed! "What is the curse?" the priest asks. The mayor doesn't know, but he recounts the tale of a young man who loved watermelons.

This young man sneaked off and ate watermelon on the day that the village had performed its watermelon-spirit-calming ritual...and he got a stomachache! From "only" 10 basketball-sized watermelons! (The lovely Sakura says, "Only 10? I normally eat 20!" Cherry and the mayor agree that they normally can handle around 18.)

So then Lum finds a watermelon: a giant one, about 12 feet in diameter. It's festooned with shi te, and it's obviously the central object of a shrine. The kids don't know about the watermelon spirits. Shinobu observes that the giant watermelon is pretty disgusting. Lum thumps it and says it sounds weird. Ataru adds that they probably added the shi te to decorate it because it was so ugly, and they all have a laugh at that, with Lum thumping the watermelon some more. Shinobu suggests they leave, and so they do...and the watermelon quivers and starts to do this weird breathing thing, before leaping off the shrine and rolling after the kids.

The kids are chased by the watermelon all the way to the beach, with the population of the town following and screaming that they kids are stealing their god. They make a right-angle turn onto the beach and the watermelon follows; and it then launches itself into the air and lands on Ataru, which prompts Lum to electrocute the thing...and it cracks.

The villagers are aghast. Their god has been cracked! How will they ever avoid the curse of the watermelon spirits?

Thoroughly pissed off, the watermelon god shows its face for the first time (as well as stick-figure arms and legs) and tells the villagers that he's really, really angry, and that he's going to curse them all...starting with the mayor! The mayor bravely stands in front of the watermelon god and steels himself for the worst. The watermelon god takes a breath...

...and sprays him with seeds.

Mayor: THIS is the curse?
WG: Yes! How do you like it?

The subtext in the Mayor's comments are, "This is the STUPID curse we've been so worried about for FIVE HUNDRED FRIGGING YEARS???"

What does he think of it? He takes a chunk of watermelon, eats it, and spits the seeds back at the watermelon god! And the villagers do too!

...so what does this have to do with shopping?

Today I thought it'd be nice to get a watermelon. And the watermelons at the grocery store were all round, like the way the Japanese like to grow theirs, and mostly their color was pretty good, except for the part which was on the bottom (ie the part resting on the ground). I was thumping them to try to find a good one, and I suddenly remembered Lum thumping the giant watermelon in the shrine.

So I'm standing there, moving watermelons and looking at them, and laughing out loud because I'm thinking about the watermelon god...and I realized that I probably looked like a complete lunatic.

At least I got a seedless watermelon. No curse for me!