July 27, 2012
Watching the Royal Navy’s HMS Ocean squeak past the Thames barrier to provide security for the Olympic Games got us wondering. What lies beneath London’s historic river?
You might be surprised: A Zeppelin from a 1916 bombing run. Two Hawker Hurricanes lost in 1940. A Junkers Ju 88 shot down in 1941. The remainder of two Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses that collided mid-air in 1944.
And that’s not all. As historian Peter Ackroyd writes in Thames: The Biography, “It was estimated, at the end of [World War II], that approximately 15,000 high-explosive bombs, 350 parachute mines, 550 flying bombs and 240 rockets had fallen upon the Thames and dockland in the course of 1,400 raids. It may have been surmised that to destroy the Thames was, essentially, to destroy England; but the river, and the country, somehow survived.”
The Zeppelin L-15 was one of five airships that raided the east and northeast coasts of England on April 1, 1916, killing 28 people and wounding 44. The L-15 was brought down at the mouth of the Thames: “the airship’s back had been broken by gunfire, her gondolas were riddled with shrapnel bullets,” reported the New York Times on April 2. “She came down like a sick bird, flopping at both ends as though they were wings,” said a sailor who watched the airship descend.
The Thames is just 215 miles long—by comparison, the Mississippi River meanders for almost 4,000 miles—and almost 100 aircraft were lost in the river during World War II alone. During the first few months of the war, more than 100 ships were sunk in the Thames Estuary, taken out by German magnetic mines.
It’s difficult to determine how much of this debris remains to be recovered. When approach channels were being dredged for London Gateway (a deep-sea container port that will open in 2013), marine archaeologists noted, “Although World War II took place only 70 years ago, records of the positions of aircraft lost at sea are often vague or incomplete.”
As recently as April, an unexploded 1,650-lb German mine was detonated in the Thames estuary, propelling water and ash nearly 400 feet into the air.
July 24, 2012
While the world’s Olympic athletes prepare for combat in the sports arena, the British Army is preparing to handle more serious attacks, in part by placing missiles on London rooftops.
Fred Wigg Tower isn’t among London’s 20 tallest buildings. In fact, at just 17 stories, it’s barely 155 feet tall. (In contrast, London’s tallest, the Shard, is more than 1,000 feet.) But what the East London public housing project lacks in height, it makes up for with location, location, location: The building has one of the best vantage points across London’s Olympic Park.
The tower, which hosted a rooftop battery of missiles during a test deployment in early May, is one of six sites chosen to have rooftop surface-to-air missiles during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games; it’s the first time that missile batteries have been positioned inside London since World War II.
The tenants of Fred Wigg tower block went to court to stop the missiles being placed on their rooftop, arguing that the installation would make their building a target for terrorist attacks. (They lost their court case.) Says David Enright, the residents’ lawyer, in this video from July 10, “The clear implication is that the Ministry of Defence now has the power to militarize the private homes of any person in Britain, so long as they can demonstrate that there is, in their view, a matter of national security in play.”
Not everyone is dismayed by the thought of missiles dotting London’s landscape. The Telegraph reported that one Duncan Simpson posted video of himself at the controls of an anti-aircraft missile launcher on his Facebook page. “After a couple of points this evening the army kindly allowed my friend and I to have a play with their weapons of mass destruction up on Blackheath [south east London],” he wrote. The Rapier surface-to-air missile, with a range of five miles, is capable of shooting down a 747 passenger jet.
June 4, 2012
Making it easier, cheaper, and quicker to get things into orbit is the hot ticket right now. In our latest issue we cover the ongoing efforts by the Operationally Responsive Space office, working out of Kirtland Air Base in New Mexico, to make quick-launch spacecraft. DARPA’s also in that game: last week they awarded Boeing a $4.5 million contract to study airborne satellite launch systems. DARPA’s website explains:
The goal of [the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access] ALASA is to develop a significantly less expensive approach for routinely launching small satellites, with a goal of at least threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and US commercial launch costs. Currently, small satellite payloads cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch, and must share a launcher with other satellites. ALASA seeks to launch satellites on the order of 100 pounds for less than $1M total, including range support costs, to orbits that are selected specifically for each 100 pound payload.
They also note other disadvantages of fixed launch sites, like weather delays and limitations on the types of orbits available. Of course, the idea for aircraft-based launches goes back to NASA’s X-planes in the 1950s. Today, Orbital Sciences Corp. sends satellites into space with its Pegasus rocket that launches from a Lockheed-1101 Tri-Star (NASA’s NuSTAR spacecraft is scheduled for a June 13 airborne launch). And Stratolaunch Systems, the collaboration of Scaled Composites, SpaceX, and Dynetics, is in the works to take payloads up “affordably and responsibly” (and if successful, “mark the dawn of a new era of space transportation,” if they do say so themselves).
With ALASA, which has been in the works since November 2011, DARPA is looking for something a bit lighter-duty for smaller satellites — the Pegasus/Tri-Star can carry up to 1,000 pounds, while the Stratolaunch will likely be rated for payloads upwards of 100,000 pounds. And somehow, they want this launch system designed so that it requires “no recurring maintenance or support, and no specific integration to prepare for launch.” A pick-it-up-and-go system, indeed. We’ll be interested to see what Boeing comes up with by the end of their 18-month contract.
May 22, 2012
Driving through the NASA Kennedy Space Center gate last Saturday for the first attempt at launching SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, I noted the light traffic compared to the bumper-to-bumper scenes of the past. “Man, this ain’t no shuttle launch,” I said to the guard at the gate. “What shuttle?” he answered. “I was laid off a year ago.”
He was smiling, but not kidding. At Cape Canaveral, many are still resentful about the end of the shuttle program, or the lack of something big enough to replace it. And there’s a bit of envy directed at the young upstarts from California.
Robert Pearlman of collectSPACE got it right with his photo of today’s Falcon launch and a shuttle mockup. We’re seeing a historic passing of the baton in the space business.
The giant shuttle launch pads and assembly buildings now sitting silent and empty at the Cape are a monument to human ingenuity, but their day is over. Whether SpaceX will ultimately succeed, technically or economically, remains to be seen. They may not even get through this week without a major setback. And the company payroll of 1,860 people wouldn’t make a dent in the shuttle workforce.
Still, the numbers should grow. Elon Musk certainly believes they will. He talks about helping to set up communities on Mars, which is more than NASA dares to discuss these days. Musk has been known to bad mouth the aerospace establishment, but the SpaceX founder is more tempered in his comments lately, and humbler too (which must be hard when you’re called the Chief Designer and are treated like a rock star). He’s quick to thank NASA for his company’s success, as well he should. The young company and the middle-aged space agency are on this mission (space station resupply) together, and SpaceX benefits daily from NASA’s decades of operational experience, not to mention paying contracts.
SpaceX-bashers who complain that the company is not “truly commercial” raise an irrelevant point. Plenty of American businesses are subsidized or otherwise propped up by the government. And it’s not like taxpayers handed SpaceX a gift. For a modest (by NASA standards) technology investment of $381 million, the agency has incubated a business that everyone agrees is critical to operating the space station. Dragon cargo service will cost less than other options, and come online faster. What’s the down side?
If space travel has a future as a large-scale enterprise, companies like SpaceX are now creating it. Not all the people who worked on the shuttle will get a chance to work on the New Thing, which is a shame, because they did good work. But their teenage children might.
May 11, 2012
These kids yawn at your typical roof egg-dropping challenge. Tomorrow, 100 teams will compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The teams are made of three to ten middle and high school students, who have already bested hundreds of other teams from around the country to make it to the D.C.-area competition, where they’ll send handmade rockets into the sky for top-notch prizes.
The Challenge started in 2002 as a celebration of the centennial of aviation, but the response and support was so big, it’s continued annually ever since. The kids register in the fall and spend all year with a teacher-supervisor and a mentor from the National Association of Rocketry to learn the math and physics required to blast up to the required altitude (this year it’s 800 feet), while carrying two raw eggs safely up and back down to Earth.
The top ten teams split $60,000 in cash and scholarships, and are given opportunities with NASA’s Student Launch Initiative and trips to international air shows with member companies from the Challenge’s sponsor, the Aerospace Industries Association.
If you’re in the D.C. area, you can head over to see the teams compete tomorrow during an event that’s part celebration of science, engineering, and nerdery (people have been known to dress up in costume), and part introduction to the competitive world of the aerospace industry. The “Final Flyoff” happens in the Great Meadow at 5089 Old Tavern Road, The Plains, Virginia, just about an hour drive from Washington, D.C. Bring a picnic and watch the launches throughout the day, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. In between, wander around the exhibition area that will feature aerospace company displays, mini-rocket demos and contests, and college representative to talk about their science and engineering majors. Then see the Rocketry Challenge winners, and very likely the future leaders of the aerospace industry, crowned at 5 p.m.
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