Around the World by Zeppelin — and by Shuttle

Eighty years ago in aviation history — August 8, 1929 — the German airship Graf Zeppelin began its historic and highly publicized flight around the world.

(Photo of Graf Zeppelin in Los Angeles during the around-the-world flight. Click to enlarge. Image from

U.S. newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst paid half the cost of the flight in exchange for exclusive media rights. The first leg of the voyage took the airship from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where the official around-the-world flight would begin. That flight ended back in Lakehurst on August 29, the first passenger-carrying flight around the world, in 12 days and 11 minutes of actual flying time. For more on the Graf Zeppelin, see this airship site.

How far flight technology progressed in six decades, that 20 years ago on the same day — August 8, 1989 — the Space Shuttle Columbia would launch from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-28.

(STS-28 mission patch. Click to enlarge. NASA image.)

While the Graf Zeppelin had traveled a little over 21,000 miles around the world, Astronauts Brewster H. Shaw, Richard N. Richards, James C. Adamson, David C. Leestma, and Mark N. Brown traveled about 2.1 million miles in orbit around the planet. They accomplished a classified Department of Defense mission and landed at Edwards Air Force Base five days later. (I can’t remember if I saw that landing or not — it was early morning Pacific time — but I know it wasn’t one that I supported as part of the AF Flight Test Center shuttle team. But even if I didn’t see it, I’m sure I heard the double sonic boom.)

Also on this date in 1989, the European Space Agency launched the Hipparcos satellite on an Ariane rocket out of Kourou, French Guiana. Hipparcos was an “astrometry” mission, i.e., to measure the heavens. It “pinpointed the positions of more than one hundred thousand stars with high precision, and more than one million stars with lesser precision,” according to this ESA web page.

All this makes me want to go on an around-the-world journey. But where should I go?

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Does the President Believe His Own Rhetoric?

On Memorial Day, we expect the President and other politicians to commemorate those who gave their lives, and in doing so to recognize the military for its role in defending our freedoms. President Obama did not disappoint: he carried out the kind of Presidential ceremonies we expect. I was surprised, however, at what he said during one address.

For someone who has asserted (and ostensibly believes in) the power of words, and who comes across as believing that his words and the force of his personality will carry the day against intractable adversaries, one line I heard seemed careless. He referred to those who choose military service as “the best of America.” As much as that might appeal to my vanity, I had to wonder whether he really believes what he said. Did he think about the fact that he was excluding millions of people from “the best of America” by focusing on military service? Did he think about the fact that he was excluding himself? Or were they just words to him, rhetorical tools to soothe and placate families who lost loved ones in war — including at least one war he believes should not have been fought?

Excuse me, my cynicism is showing.

I haven’t gone back to the ceremonial rhetoric of previous administrations to see what kinds of platitudes they might have used, and whether those could be taken as more ironic than authentic. (I’m unlikely to do so, but if anyone else wants to I’ll be happy to read their analysis.)

How much do words matter, and how much stock does the President really put in his rhetoric? I don’t know. My central concern is this: if the President says things he may or may not mean, is it any wonder that the North Koreans and Iranians are ignoring him?

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In Recent News: Operationally Responsive Space

I was surprised to see two news items about ORS this week: the ORS demonstrator TacSat-3 launched Tuesday on a Minotaur rocket, and then ORS-1 — which would be the first operational spacecraft, and an infrared imager, no less — showed up as the third-highest item on the Air Force’s unfunded priorities list.

I posted blurbs about both items in a dedicated thread in the “Space Tactics, Techniques, & Procedures” section of the Space Warfare Forum. I’d love to be convinced that my original misgivings about ORS — which I developed while still in the service, based on the briefings and articles I saw — have been overcome.

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Two Obscure Space Anniversaries

Today we offer two space anniversaries that are a bit more obscure than usual:

Fifty years ago today — April 13, 1959 — the Discoverer-2 satellite launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Thor Agena rocket. Discoverer was the cover name for the CORONA photoreconnaissance program. Here’s a fascinating page about CORONA on the National Reconnaissance Office web site.

And thirty-five years ago today — April 13, 1974 — Westar-1, the first domestic communication satellite, launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta rocket.

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Space History: Space Radar on the Shuttle

Fifteen years ago today — April 9, 1994 — the Space Shuttle Endeavour launched from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-59. Astronauts Sidney M. Gutierrez, Kevin P. Chilton,* Linda M. Godwin, Jerome “Jay” Apt, Michael R. Clifford, and Thomas D. Jones operated the Space Radar Laboratory (SRL-1) on this mission.

You would think, 15 years after it was demonstrated on a shuttle flight, that the U.S. would have a more robust space-based radar capability. Alas, no: when I was on active duty, serving on the Air Staff, the Air Force was still advocating for that program. (Here’s a 2005 Space Review article about it.) I doubt there will be any room for it in the Pentagon budget any time soon.

*Now a USAF General. He commanded AF Space Command and is the current Commander of US Strategic Command.

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Did General Cartwright Mean What He Said?

According to Reuters, he said the words, but I wonder if he thought through what the words implied.

General James “Hoss” Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was discussing the need to make “hard choices” with respect to funding different weapons systems when he said:

“Would you buy, in tough economic times, something that does one thing well or something that does a hundred things well?”

(The article is here.)

My first reaction to that statement was, to use the vernacular, DUH. Then I thought about it some more and wondered why the economic situation would matter to that decision: the statement seems to imply that the costs of the two “something”s are the same, so of course any fool would buy the one that does 99 more (extra?) things well.

But General Cartwright should know that no complex system that does 100 things well is going to cost the same as something that does only 1 thing well. In truly austere times, it may be necessary to forego most of those 99 extra features in order to afford the 1 feature that matters.

But I’m surprised that he would even imply that it’s possible to build a system that can do a large number (100 was surely hyperbole) of things as well as specialized systems. Trade-offs have to be made, and some amount of performance has to be sacrificed, to add bells and whistles — let alone to add real capabilities. It’s more likely that we would give up the 1 thing done very well to get 10 things done moderately well. That may end up being a real bargain, and he’s right that deciding on the 10 things out of the 100 possible things will involve difficult choices, but the real issue is whether the end result will be adequate to accomplish the mission.

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50 Years Ago in Space History

Fifty years ago today — March 10, 1959 — NASA flew the X-15 research plane on its first “captive” flight attached to their B-52 test aircraft.

(NASA Image E-4935. Click to enlarge. For more images, see NASA’s X-15 photo collection.)

The X-15 program eventually carried pilots to the edge of space from Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

And in the category of personal nostalgia, I have a picture of that same B-52 aircraft on my office wall, courtesy of my boss at the Rocket Lab at Edwards. In my picture, it doesn’t have an X-15 attached to the pylon: it’s carrying the Pegasus space launch vehicle, for which I served on the Flight Readiness Review panel. (Which was still pretty cool for a starry-eyed young lieutenant.)

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This Space History Series Makes Me Feel Old

Especially items like this one: 30 years ago today — March 5, 1979 — Voyager-1 passed Jupiter at a distance of 278,000 kilometers (c. 173,000 miles … closer than the moon is to the earth) and sent back photos and data about the gas giant.

On another note, it’s unfortunate that Voyager had to star in the awful first STAR TREK movie.

In other space history, 35 years ago today the X-24B research vehicle made its first supersonic flight with NASA pilot John A. Manke at the controls. This took place, of course, at Edwards AFB, where I would be stationed just a few years later at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (seen in the background of the attached photo of an X-24B landing; more available here).

(NASA Photo ECN-4351. Click to enlarge.)

Yes, just a precious few years later I was climbing around those test stands on Leuhman Ridge. Those were good days, but these days are good, too.

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We Told Them, But They Didn’t Listen

Back in March of 2008, my old boss prompted me to start a new thread in the Space Warfare Forum on whether President Obama might de-weaponize space. Here’s what we wrote then:

Not to overstate the obvious, but space is already weaponized. Not, perhaps, in the form of constantly orbiting weapons platforms, but then again we haven’t seen many proposals for those, have we? But in the form of dedicated platforms necessary to our national defense, space is weaponized. And in the form of recently demonstrated anti-satellite capability that challenges the Senator’s “unproven missile defense systems” line — and that we argued elsewhere were already evolving — the use of weapons in and near space is here today, and probably here to stay.

Fast forward to this weekend, and Reuters reports that “Challenges loom as Obama seeks space weapons ban.” But their article doesn’t seem to consider the already existing uses of space systems to enable terrestrial warfare, instead mentioning that two “officials” said “it was difficult to define exactly what constituted a ‘weapon’ because even seemingly harmless weather tracking satellites could be used to slam into and disable other satellites.”

That example seemed to me to be poorly chosen, but the Reuters folks apparently liked it.

In my follow-up SWF entry, I related what I told my best friend the last time I spoke with him:

I hope President Obama, when he took his first briefings on the very real threats facing us, sat up a little straighter and began to take his responsibility to protect this nation a little more seriously. I hope.

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