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19 July 2011

Death of the Queen of Hearts

Just before bed, he had spoken to his friend about the absurdity of the army forbidding chaplains from entering any area or situation which exposed him to enemy violence. He had said, “How can a shepherd stay in safety while sending out his brothers into danger? Some of his brothers are lambs. It is not that he can pick up a gun and defend them, it is that he can and must participate in the danger—and in the violence—and in the death—with them. He must do this because he is human. He must do this because they are human.”

He floated there, but only for a moment. He was not merely observing, but participating.

She was dressed and made-up like the Queen of Hearts. It made no sense. Her knees on the floor, and her hips resting on her ankles, the large room with slate floors was dimly lit. Parallel red band in her cowl and over-robe glowed fluorescently and matched the lip-stick which she wore. To her left, another woman, a sister perhaps, superior and in charge. There was some familial aspect to the relationship. To that woman-in-power’s left were others. The man did not bother with them. He had already begun to merge with the Queen of Hearts, and even as the slightest overlap of his unseen existence, just at the shins and ankles, already he knew that the woman seated above her and to her left had killed the pretty queen.

Merging from between the two, he none-the-less glanced at the dieing woman’s face from the other side. It was a very pretty face, delicate in features which the bold red lipstick did not alter. She was gentle, she was humble. Her eyes downcast, she was seemingly unaware of his presence. He ached to caress that face, and had it not been for the crisis, he would have.

As he slid sideways and his whole being was enveloped in her form, he knew what she knew. She had been poisoned, death was assumed to be imminent. The woman was rather calmly wondering if she would experience pain. Before so many others (all the others were remote and nameless-- essentially faceless because she did not care enough to bother to look at any of them) it flashed through her mind that she hoped she would not vomit as a result of any pain, and hoped she would not cry out in agony. Not knowing how the poison would effect her, she wanted to lie down and be still. Instead, she placed her hand which had been folded with the other in her lap, onto the cool slate to her right and slightly forward.

As soon as she allowed her weight to lean onto her arm, she seemed to be unable to endure it. She was weakening. She wondered, if the weakness was the poison or the despair. Her head lowered a bit and she noted her own regalia—the darkness punctuated by the brilliant red lines.

The woman to her left spoke. It was calming, intended to be matter-of-fact and somehow related to the purposefulness and inevitability that her younger sibling (if that is what the Queen was to the woman) would submit to the power of the poison. There was a sense that the words were directed at the dieing Queen, but intended for the ears of everyone else. The man did not take note of the actual words, just the sense of them.

He slid slightly right through her form and partially exposed where his head and eyes would be, glanced again at her lovely face. Her eyes were nearly closed now, and she appeared to be fading. He slipped back fully into her shape and again participated in her experience. She was unusually free of fear, and her thoughts mostly focused on the moment. Her arm seemed insufficient to keep her partially upright and began lowering herself to lie on the floor. He lay with her, saw what she saw through her eyes: The floor coming nearer, the coolness of the slate against her cheek; the relaxation of her muscles, voluntary and involuntary now that she now longer exerted any effort. She could sleep, if there was time.

There was not time. She wondered again if she was merely giving up or if it was the poison causing her to lie so still. The woman to the left was speaking again, and again the man sensed through the Queen a vague understanding but without knowing the exact words which were said.

The queen’s eyes closed, leaving the only physical sense-- the sense of the slate against the queen’s cheek, drawing her warmth. Her thoughts were now on her breathing. She felt no pain, and assumed she would not need worry about that, now. Had she become paralyzed? She did not think she could move anymore, but she did not try. The woman to her left had said something (he did not know what it was), which made the queen fear that she might be mistaken for already being dead and whatever would follow might be terrible—whatever they were going to do with her.

Briefly he sensed thoughts of being dismembered, or burned alive, but then the growing confidence that her death really was near, that she would die before any terrible acts took place—that she would die in peace. Her murder was a gentle one, the queen and the man felt a sense of thankfulness for that. She was certain, for a moment with her eyes closed, that she had stopped breathing. The man participating in this with her as he knew what it was to be suffocated, and marveled that she faced that sense so very much as he had—with acceptance, with calm, and without struggle. He had survived it and he was thinking—hoping—that maybe the pretty queen may survive as he once had.

Then, the Queen knew only her breathing. She was still breathing. Slowly, almost without motion of her diaphragm, she sensed the slight flow of air in and out again. About the third slow, calm, and shallow breath, someone approached and noticed just what she somehow knew—that the warm moisture of her breath fogged the surface of the slate before her with each exhalation. She was aware, without seeing, of the presence of a hand near her nose and mouth, searching for her breath, and finding it.

She was aware without hearing, that the male person whose hand was there before her, was telling the woman to her left that he detected her breath. The man floating within her found his own thoughts separating from hers. His were worried thoughts. He worried that the breath was too shallow—too little air to sustain the queen.

The man woke. There was a matter-of-fact sense that his waking was inevitable. Before his closed eyes, he saw a smooth solitary slate oblique, as if floating in blackness. It was thin, resembling a table-top… almost appearing metallic, like a examination table at a morgue. The sense of death was clear enough in it. He thought of the queen and simply resolved the matter that he could not return to her, but he dared not wonder if she could now find him. Not thinking of that, he opened his eyes. Green numbers glowed before his eyes, telling him the time, and potentially telling him that he was in his own bed, in his own room. The presence of the clock radio beside his bed seemed almost obscene.

He closed his eyes, and remembered the beautiful woman, hoping she remained at peace as the moment he was forced, by whatever metaphysics drive such things, to leave her. The slab floated in his memory, but still somehow physically near. He began to drift toward sleep, the weight of his body somehow pleasing even though it was binding compared to the experience of the last few minutes. He was smiling, but did not know it, thinking of the love he felt for the queen, her gentleness, and his privilege of sharing those intimate moments with her. It did not bother him at all that she seemed to have no awareness that he had shared those moments with her.

A crash, outside. Perhaps it was the sound of a thin sheet of slate falling, finally, to the street. The room in which his bed existed, seemed to shift slightly as if to make a minor adjustment in orientation so as to fit where it belonged inside the house. He fell asleep rather certain that when he had found himself in his bed, his bed had not yet found itself back in his room, and that now, and only now, the journey—or the mission—was over.

He dreamed of examination tables floating in the darkness; and even sleeping, noted his own breathing, steady, as deep or as shallow as he chose.

18 July 2011

End of the Shuttle Links

To follow the last days of the NASA Space Shuttle Program, some links of interest.

The Shuttle's final landing is set to occur at 4:57 Houston Time on 21-Jul-2011.

* Deorbit and Landing procedure (using prior flight)
--This is the transcript of the public announcements of each general step in the de-orbit burn and landing of STS- 115, which used nearly the same path and time as is scheduled for STS-135 on Thursday, 21-Jul-2011

* Real Time Shuttle/ISS Position
-- Using the ISS, the user can switch to the Shuttle (STS-135) or any other of a large number of satellites being tracked.

* Real Time Shuttle tracking using Google Earth (download page)
-- NASA's (Beta test) software for crew spacecraft tracking.  Included download for real time tracking as well as static display of launch and landing points with useful data.

08 July 2011

NEW : NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (formerly "Crew Exploration Vehicle") -- Placating the status quo?

Placating rather than innovating?

Much of what would normally be expected to be available from NASA in terms of design details seems to lean, instead, toward non-specific "considerations" placating current contractors associated with NASA through the shuttle-- rather than developing better and newer technologies.

A recent CNN report, Beyond Atlantis, on the end of the NASA Space Shuttle era, contained a brief mention of the next US manned spacecraft for NASA.  Already well into development, the former deep space crew capsule under the Constellation project was quickly adjusted to meet the needs of the Obama Administration's new tasking of the space agency; and with the mandated changes came also the name change from Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).  Unlike Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Space Shuttle, NASA's next generation space vehicle is almost unknown to the general public.

Lockheed Martin photo of MPCV, via NASA
The Wikipedia article on the MPCV, as of this writing, is flagged by its own editors for its sparse content.  Hidden from most users, editors see the article has been flagged with the words, "This article is written like an advertisement." At once both sad and humorous, the content of that article is nearly a verbatim of the NASA press releases made on May 24, 2011.

Scanning what little specific information is available, the advertisement theme from NASA begins to deepen as a marketing technique, rather than the technological reporting which is more typical of the agency.

The mission:
In one NASA press release (here), it is said:
  • Spacecraft to serve as the primary crew vehicle for missions beyond LEO
  • Capable of conducting regular in-space operations (rendezvous, docking, extravehicular activity) in conjunction with payloads delivered by SLS for missions beyond LEO
  • Capability to be a backup system for ISS cargo and crew delivery.
But nowhere are specific "beyond LOE" (Low Earth Orbit) missions identified.
Low Earth Orbit is variously defined, but is most usefully understood to be within the Van Allen Radiation Belt, for two reasons: 
Crossing through the radiation belt subjects the crew to a risk of high doses of X-Ray and Gamma radiation.  NASA did it successfully each time Apollo crossed the belt on the way to the moon, flying through the known weakest portions of the belt and passing through it as quickly as possible (  
Secondly, the belt protects the Earth from dangerous radiation.  Outside of that belt, any unanticipated major solar event could easily become deadly to any persons beyond the Van Allen Belt without proper shielding.  In addition to x-ray and gamma ray radiation, the Van Allen Belt also shields the Earth from cosmic rays which are far more difficult-- perhaps impossible-- to suppress or absorb.

Elsewhere is found other mention of the vehicle's deep-space ability to make possible a manned visit to some future and unnamed passing asteroid (e.g., the CNN report, mentioned above, referred to this possibility). Much more vaguely mentioned are suggestions of its being used as a step toward returning to the moon and manned exploration of Mars. Yet, there is no lander, no habitat for extended voyages, and no significant information about the shielding required for a deep space vehicle.

So, on balance, the missions are defined, at best, as a back-up to the Russian Soyuz supply missions to the International Space Stations (ISS), and then only potentially for missions which are neither planned nor funded.  It seems, therefore:
  • The main purpose is to simply keep the US current in technology and preserve the brain-power already in place in NASA and its contractors, and / or
  • To replace the Soyuz because the best guess is that Russia cannot afford to keep it up.  It would be understandable that the US would not wish to state, publicly, such a lack of confidence in Russia.

The Design:
It seems NASA does not wish to state the obvious:  That the MPCV is a big Apollo capsule with modern avionics and other electronics.  However, that is what it seems to be.  There is nothing wrong with that-- the Apollo was a great design; but saying so seems to be taken as a negative from a marketing (think: Congressional Funding) approach.
    Boeing's PICA heat shield.
  • The heat-shield seems to be the same design of fiberglass honeycomb impregnated with the an ablative material (Avcoat) as was used with Apollo.
  • The crew safety system seems to be the same technology, or a close variant ,used in Apollo-- an escape tower.   From this beefed-up Max Launch Abort System test (video, below), it appears that the Service Module may also be part of the escape system.

  • The "deep-space" radiation shielding is (apparently) the water which is carried anyway in the Service Module aft of the capsule, and polyethylene-- hardly new technology.
It is known that the aluminum exterior of a spacecraft can actually aggravate crew hazards when exposed to the impact of particles from Cosmic Rays.  Water and polyethylene tend to be the most absorbent of these particles which are available for spacecraft, but the dampening effects are limited. 
Aluminum, while helpful for minimizing x-ray and gamma ray exposure, tends to increase the potential for the crew being damaged at the cellular level, by adding part of its own matter to the already ultra-high-speed particle rays.  Like hiding under a bridge which is being bombed from the air, one may escape the bomb shrapnel only to be killed by the pieces falling from the bridge.

Alone, the radiation shielding of the MPCV seems inadequate for consideration for extremely long deep space journeys such as the more than 400 day minimum expected for a Mars voyage.

Safety, Safety, Safety

NASA is very aware of the public expectations of crew safety, and as if the public may doubt it, press releases concerning the MPCV leave one with the impression that the vehicle's development is primarily a reaction to the Challenger and Columbia disasters.  It is not.

Many are aware of NASA's contrition for the loss of those two Shuttle crews and of the agency's subsequent and earnest commitment to crew safety.  But the ghosts appear.  The literature and press releases currently available emphasize crew safety technology while remaining silent as to what a crew will be accomplishing using the vehicle.

Meanwhile, the MPCV not only lacks a place to go, it also lacks the ability to get there. 

Space Launch System

The rocket to be used to boost the crew vehicle into orbit (and beyond?) does not exist.  While still under development, is heavily weighted toward using Shuttle launch technology, and according to the CNN report, even reusing left over fuel tanks.  Current expectations are for he final design to be ready in 2016.  Certainly NASA has an indebtedness to the contractors who have kept the US manned space program flying over the decades; but there may be a cost in crew safety as well as in payload limitations if recovered solid rocket motor casings and liquid fuel tank re-usability drives the design decisions.*

Now what?

NASA is tasked and funded to continue to develop a manned craft capable of re-supply of crew and cargo for the ISS and that same vehicle is to be capable of deep space missions.  This may be the highest accomplishment NASA might be expected to achieve at this time.  The desire to continue with older technology and familiar contractors is a fair compromise in the present economic environment.

In the five or six years between today's final Space Shuttle launch and the next available manned launch from NASA, specific project missions will certainly be developed and proposed for feasibility and for funding.  Once once final equipment design is formalized, NASA's customer base can begin payload designs, just as has been done with the Shuttle.

Perhaps it will be, by 2016, men and women will board a new spacecraft with an appropriately godly name, and again capture the imagination and the hopes of human endeavor.

--WCG; 8-Jul-2011

Useful Specification:
  • Crew of four
  • 21 day mission capability with out additional supply.
  • Advanced shielding for deep space work
  • Integrated docking hardware (for ISS and future modules to be designed)

*Aerojet with Teledyne Brown announced its intent to design a competitive all-liquid-fuel rocket for the MPCV based upon its NK-33.