Monday, December 29, 2014

Whether up or down, forward movement is behind schedule

With all the troubles plaguing this planet, is there any hope of removing oneself to a distant universe that isn’t a product of one’s imagination? Back in 1969, we were supposed to be exploring the outer planets by 2001; it seems that we are a bit behind schedule, although back then it seemed as if after traveling to the moon and back it was just another “easy” step beyond. But Richard Nixon decided to cancel the Apollo program in 1973, despite the fact that future missions had already been paid for. An army of 100,000 engineers and aerospace workers eventually left NASA, leaving an undermanned and underbudgeted agency that was left with the Space Shuttle program,  which had significant design problems that led to two shuttle disasters in which all members of the crew were killed. 

Beyond that, the space program has revolved around the International Space Station, largely controlled by the Russians, since after the end of the Space Shuttle program it is the only country with the capacity to regularly resupply it. Nothing much happens up there anyways, except for make-work experiments that have no real application back on Earth, to justify its existence and expense. 

Nevertheless, we can still have our fantasies. In 2004, George Bush announced a grand vision for the future of NASA, called the “Constellation” program, which would include a new manned spacecraft called Orion, a return to the moon and an eventual manned mission to Mars. I thought at the time it was just an election year gimmick for a president who lacked that “vision” thing, except to waste lives in a needless war. Orion is little more than an update of Apollo (might as well go back to what worked), except with a different propulsion system. The original Saturn V rocket weighed 6.4 million pounds fully fueled, while the entire Orion craft powered by a Delta-IV rocket weighed 1.6 million pounds. The Apollo moon rocket was also 50 percent taller than Orion from base to the tip of the launch aborter. NASA plans on building a “megarocket” booster, the “Space Launch System” project, possibly appearing in test phase in 2018. Or maybe not.

I you are as old as I am, don’t hold your breath for the next big jump, a manned flight to Mars. The program is already six years behind schedule; in fact, the original ambitious “Constellation” program was cancelled in 2010 due to budgetary issues, and despite the recent successful test launch of Orion, the first manned flight is not scheduled until 2021. As of this time, the planned lunar surface module is off the board, even though there is an insistence that a lunar mission will “eventually” happen. This obviously indicates a lack of the kind of commitment of resources that the Apollo missions had, which had a far shorter gestation period from drawing board to reality. 

The first Mars mission is not slated until 2030; that may seem far away and plenty of time to get it right, but one still suspects that the propulsion and crew survival requirements to achieve that goal may never be acquired in any our lifetimes—unless some Einstein emerges with the necessary technological discovery to make it so. The current “plan” to reach Mars is to employ a vehicle powered by a nuclear thermal rocket, which heats a liquid substance (like Hydrogen) by way of a nuclear reactor, and thrust is created by the expanding gas. Naturally, there would be concerns if an “accident” occurs using this already outdated technology. 

In the meantime, most of the testing done has been in flight abort procedures, clearly an indication of the concern for crew safety in the wake of the shuttle disasters, the lack of funding and the need to avoid a public relations catastrophe that could end support for the program altogether.

In the meantime, several private enterprises have taken over where the Space Shuttle left off, but given that the first successful unmanned launch of a stripped-down Orion cost $370 million, one suspects that the “for profit” goal of these entities is a pipedream. One gets the impression that these projects are the fantasies of billionaires and celebrities. There have been a few “successful” launches of booster rockets, but nothing that achieved beyond suborbital heights. Two recent disasters—the explosion on lift-off of an unmanned rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp, and the deadly crash of the Virgin Galactic  prototype SpaceShipTwo—blamed on what was called “pilot error”—demonstrates that despite all of its shortcomings today, NASA still is the best answer to fulfilling the space travel dream.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth going “underground” seems to have similar “challenges.” The collapse of the Cypress Street Viaduct during California’s Bay Area Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989—in which it was initially believed that 200 people driving during rush hour were crushed under the top level of the bridge, although the actual number was around 20—caused some concerns elsewhere. I happened to be in San Francisco that day for a visit, and when I returned to Sacramento a little more than an hour later I learned that the earthquake had struck; I returned the next week to view the destruction of rows of beachfront houses in the Marina District.

In Seattle, there were fears that the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a similarly double-decked bridge, might collapse during an earthquake. Since moving here in 1991, I’ve experienced two earthquakes that were strong enough to actually notice for a second or two, but there are always the warnings that a “big one” is on the way, someday—much like the “someday” that Mount Rainier will blow its top, and send a tsunami of lava, mud and water cascading in a mad rush down the valley all the way to Elliot Bay. 

The second of these tremors occurred in 2001; I remember standing in a parking lot and feeling the earth move beneath my feet ever so slightly (I was in a rickety old apartment room for the first—now that one kind of made me think about moving elsewhere). The Nisqually earthquake actually was that closer-to-home wake-up call, because the viaduct did sustain damage, and cost millions in repairs. It was subsequently espoused by the experts that the viaduct needed to be shut down sooner rather than later, and thus began the investigation into a way to replace it, so as not to cause disruptions in traffic in one of the most traffic-congested cities in the country.

It was eventually decided to build a “hybrid” system to replace the viaduct, with both a tunnel and surface level, although not without considerable controversy. This was warranted, although more about its cost and who would pay for it rather than the actual construction difficulties. There was no reference to Boston’s “Big Dig” tunnel project, which itself was not without considerable pain before, during and after its construction. Planning for it had begun in 1982 to untangle part of the city’s antiquated streets alignment, but actual work did not begin until 1991. It was set to be completed by 1998, but it wasn’t officially opened for business until the end of 2007, at double its original cost.

The Big Dig was not only plagued with delays and cost overruns, but by taking shortcuts in its construction. The acquisition of cheap—meaning shoddy—material, even shoddier work that led to arrests for fraud, dangerous working conditions, hundreds of leaks, improperly placed lighting that will cost millions more to replace, and even falling ceilings, one of which led to a death and millions in lawsuits, added-up to one gigantic headache.

One wonders if Seattle and the state were paying any attention. The viaduct project hasn’t even gotten past the “dig” phase, as the Japanese-made digging machine, nicknamed “Bertha,” sits idle, out of commission, and who knows when it is going to be operational again. Bertha  first stalled because it could not cut through what was thought to be a giant boulder that engineers were surprised to encounter (subsequently it was discovered to be a steel pipe), and now the contraption’s blades are stuck, overheated after being clogged with the wet sand and earth; the company that built it apparently didn’t take this possibility into consideration, especially given the difficulty in accessing the front of Bertha in order to repair it.

Perhaps as should have been expected, there are now reports of leaks and ground sinkage. Who knows what problems have not been reported, and those to come. At present, the claim is that the project will be “only” two years overdue, but that seems to be an extremely optimistic assumption. 

It is not that these tunnel projects are not useful if done properly. Seattle’s bus tunnel was completed without a great deal of controversy, and it kept dozens of bus routes from clogging city streets—or keeping automobiles from clogging bus traffic. But that tunnel was not built under or adjacent to a body of water, requiring massive and expensive reinforcement. This is in contrast to the Channel Tunnel, running 23 miles underneath the English Channel, connecting Britain with France. It was dug 150 to 250 beneath the sea bed, protected by a thick layer of ancient chalk and rock. There have been problems with the Tunnel, of course, but mainly electrical fires and shorts that have caused occasional shutdowns.

Whether up or down, perhaps it is not fair to question human ingenuity too harshly, but is fair to say that the more “complicated” the technology, the less reliable it seems to be in many cases. It doesn’t make one particularly “hopeful” that all the “smart” people will have all the answers to fix the problems that have been wrought—let alone fulfill someone’s space travel fantasy. The American Society of Civil Engineers tells us that it will cost $2 trillion to repair or replace old and decomposing infrastructure just to keep the country afloat, and we have hardly even started on that project.

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