Thursday, March 28, 2013

New Article in Physics of Life Reviews

I have a new article in Physics of Life Reviews, in which I comment on Liane Gabora's recent model of cultural evolutionary dynamics. It will be some time before the article is available beyond academic servers.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Meanwhile, in Copenhagen...

At Copenhagen Suborbitals, the capsule is still under heavy development; integrated to it is the pilot seat, and the dimensions and mass of that item depend heavily on the pressure suit design. To that end I've adjusted my seat mockup, getting the knees a bit farther out from the chest, making it a bit more comfortable and -- more important -- somewhat safer, for several reasons.

After pressurizing in this position this weekend for measurements, I'll take the Big Leap I've been meaning to get around to for a long time: removing the exhale valve assembly from the helmet and replacing it with my own.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Roman Message Book

My Mom is a bookbinder, specializing in Medieval bookbinding methods and restoration. Recently she reached farther back in time to make a replica of a Roman wax-tablet 'message-book'; two slabs of oak (cut and chiseled out by Dad) bound by ...leather thongs, with wax poured in the flat, shallow, slab-like spaces. A stylus was used to write on the wax. To erase the message, you just rubbed it out smooth on the wax. The two circular studs in the center of the two pages keep the wax faces from touching each other when the book is closed. Tres cool!See More

Exhale Valve Spring

A dainty little spring from inside an exhale valve. I take apart and reassemble just about everything, and in particular things I don't entirely understand. A hearty NOPE to flying with anything I don't understand completely!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Escape from Alcatraz, Part II

Early up this morning, I wrapped up this item, at least in draft form. "Out past the breakers I killed the engine and we anchored in water so still that it could not be the open ocean but must be a bay, which was confirmed by the short anchor line needed. After a short time we sat in the cockpit, the air stinging with diesel fumes. “What the hell was that?” John laughed.

I sipped from a canteen and said “I just about drove us straight into the rocks.” My body and mind seemed to vibrate at a high frequency. I sat back and drummed the fiberglass hull with my fingertips.

Later we re-checked the anchor and talked over a plan to go in in the morning. When I woke hours later in my little plywood bunk, it was to a strange thrumming sound, a vibration I entirely new to my senses. The cabin light was off and I heard John say 'What was that?” “I dunno. Did we hit something?”

“We're not moving. We're anchored.”

“We better be!” I said.

Again, a thrumming, like a giant, plucked bass string, but much bigger and slower. Again. I did not move, listening carefully and trying to feel the sound, perhaps link its sensations up with something deep in my memory. John's mind assembled an explanation. “Maybe we hit a submarine cable? Maybe a cable came free from the sea floor, floated up and banged the hull?” he said, and then he said “Surely not!” “Could it be a submarine?” I asked. It was a ridiculous idea to be struck by a submarine in this shallow bay, but it was a strange situation. Our minds raced. One of us asked if it could be a whale, or dolphins playing. None of these fantasies sounded right.

I went out on deck with a flashlight. We sat motionless in a thick fog and I could see only a few feet off the boat. I pointed the light down into the water, which was flat and glassy, showing no motion. Thrummmmm.

“I dunno, John--I don't get it!” Something soft but immense seemed to be bumping the hull. Another thrumm, this time accompanied by a clinking sound to my left. I turned and laughed, seeing in the flashlight beam a guy-line vibrating, a metal fastener on it clinking on the mast.

“It's a guy-line!” I called down to John, “it's a vibrating guy-line!” We were still now, but a swell must have passed under us in the dark and transferred energy to the guy-line, giving it motion. John laughed from below as I cinched a line to the guy and tied it stiffly to a cleat.

In the morning there was no wind and we motored slowly landward through a thick fog, rising and lowering with a lovely softness on long low following swells. John held a chart at the bow and gestured for me to turn left or right as he spotted buoys that came up suddenly out of the fog. Then we punched through the fog to see that we were well in the harbor channel, perfectly positioned in the incoming sealane. The harbor entrance was constructed of two parallel miles of boulders a thousand yards apart, pointing straight out to sea. I watched green water swell up over the lowest of these boulders like thick flowing glass that drained off slowly, leaving sparkling green and white sea life speckled on the black rocks. Dozens of masts stood above the wooden docks, tipping this way and that a degree at a time in slow but certain motion. A ragged wooden tall ship, a black-painted schooner in disrepair, gave the site a piratical feel. An ugly smokestack stood high above a power plant adjacent to the harbor. There was a heavy odor of oil and damp seaweed. It was nearly noon but nobody was out on the boats or docks and I recalled Moss Harbor's seedy reputation of a place where maritime drug smuggling had all but overtaken a collapsed fishing industry. We slowed and turned in towards an open slip, passing a heavy iron pipe standing up out of the water, apparently a wreck not yet salvaged, an obstacle ready to rip open a fiberglass hull like ours. We probably wouldn't have seen it if we'd come in at night.

John stepped off the Annie B at the perfect moment and whipped the ship's lines to heavy dock cleats, fastening the sailboat to an appendage of the land. I stepped onto the dock, which moved somewhat but, being fastened to land, moved less and differently from a deck at sea. A hundred yards down the dock we stepped back onto the still Earth." (c) 2013 Cameron M. Smith

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Guest Post at WIRED

Guest post at WIRED's Rocket Shop regarding some of my research and building principles. Photos above are from the recent demonstration at Terrazign, a local NASA subcontractor.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Escape From Alcatraz

Some new writing, just hammering out a piece recounting a sailing voyage with John Haslett. Exploring the topic, sketching out the pick the analogy :)

John and I cruised out under the San Francisco Bay Bridge at 3am. The dark bulk of Alcatraz slipped by on the starboard as we nosed into a heavy chop coming in from the Pacific. Despite four tons of lead in the keel the Annie B rythmically lifted on the face of each swell, teetered on top and then banged down hard on the other side, the sailboat shuddering each time with the sound of striking an oil drum with a baseball bat. I smiled when I thought of how impressed I'd been when first reading about those four tons of lead. An illusion of course; how much did the swells amass? Thousands of tons, millions...uncountable! Only keeping the the knife-like shape of our craft pointed into the swells allowed us another day of life. Keeping that orientation was not difficult but it was life itself.

Big freighters, dark slabs low to the water marked by red and green lights spaced widely apart, slid steadily by in their narrow sealanes. “Big iron can't stop or turn, even if it sees you," John had told me about container ships once, “and they can never see you.” He'd pointed to the radar reflector high on our mast, on that earlier voyage, saying “That's nice, but don't trust it.” John, tall and affable, carried the easiness of a man with wide and varied experience and little need to speak of it. Rather, he made light of most things. But when he'd pointed out the bauble of aluminum that I'd thought might buy us some safety by showing us up on freighter radar screens, John had spoken evenly.

It was clear night out ahead and we kept the bow under a particular star to maintain our course between the invisible freighter sealanes. The glints and glow of San Francisco—I imagined people in the high-rise buildings ordering wine and eating bloody slabs of beef—receded into a haze behind and left as we nosed out into the Pacific. Later, dawn came up behind us, illuminating only miles of undifferentiated white fog that hid land. At the helm, John wheeled us South while I freed a snag on the jib and then staggered back to the cockpit with a new sea gait that shifted most of my body weight to one leg before quickly—but predictably—shifting it back to the other. Now the swells came in from the starboard, rolling us on the sailboat's long axis, heeling over towards shore, rising upright on the swell and then heeling seaward again in an endless pattern. Perhaps what I loved most about sailing was the constant motion. Travelling atop an everchanging, elastic medium, stillness is an alien concept, and I now entered a world of continual movement--continual adjustment and continual problem-solving--with my friend.

Fifteen miles offshore we were safe of the freighter lanes and driving South under a fine West breeze. My skin was already clammy and cold, just hours out of dry-dock. Back there, just outside Oakland, we'd spent weeks sanding and repainting the hull, stopping up unnecessary through-holes in the hull, reinforcing the steel plates securing the mast lines, and building a new electrical system. The work was largely coarse and entirely satisfying, preparing a vessel for open ocean. Nothing could be delicate. Every wire I fastened into place was a triumph, and when we connected the batteries and the lights and radio came on I soaked up the satisfaction of making something where before there had been nothing, assembling matter into a life-supporting arrangement. There in the acres of concrete of the dry-dock we'd been broiled under the sun with the Annie B up on giant stilts, allowing access to the entire hull. In the evenings we drank cheap beer from a cooler, looked over our charts and talked about future voyages. Our past expeditions were so familiar to one another that they needed little comment, and this voyage was assembling with each glance at the charts. John had slept inside while I'd enjoyed the unusual feeling of sleeping out on the deck of a ship firmly aground. In the mornings I'd climbed down a ladder lashed to a rail and walked over to the concrete showers to wake up. Free of my work for some time, preparing the vessel for a trip with my friend, had been a perfect time. If we'd never put into the water I wouldn't have cared. After two decades of pushing myself hard outdoors, I'd finally learned to value the journey as much as achieving arrival at a concrete destination. Well, closely enough, anyway.

But out of drydock and at sea I was again on a seeming pinnacle. Just before setting out a disastrous telephone conversation with my girlfriend had left me shaking and scattered, but out at sea I was rebuilt. Today it was John's turn to be seasick. He grapsed the hatch rails firmly as he went below, saying “I'm finished. Just keep 160 degrees true. I'll see you in a while.” My own seasickness had come and gone, I felt clean and strong and when the hatch closed behind John the ship was mine. I held two lives in my hands as I worked the lines and rudder to keep us on course and prevent us rolling over with a swell. Twice I surfed the sailboat down the landward-driving swells, spray hosing up from the sharp prow, my mind racing to drive my hands to properly control the vessel. I did not bury the prow, though, and I did not roll the Annie B as John slept below in complete ignorance of his peril. Eventually I remembered that John had kept me alive by many prudent acts as we had sailed off South America, and I finally tempered my actions to keep him alive by ceasing from my ridiculous down-wave sailboat surfing departures to keep a good course.

Two nights later I lay in a narrow bunk as the Annie B dove and sailed up in its pattern of motion. There was nothing left to vomit and my skin felt cold and damp. I didn't dare look in the little mirror mounted on a bulkhead. It was an interesting object aboard a vessel built for two men. Why bother to look at yourself? Life was the correct arrangement of sail and lines, the correct use of certain knots in certain places, the delivery, to your friend, of a cup of hot chocolate at just the right time. But John had also told me, a long time before, that an early stage of breakdown was a disconcern with basic hygene. It seemed reasonable, but I could not look into the mirror for fear of what I might see. I looked to the side, out a small porthole, at blackness. I'd gone below in daylight. I pulled the sheet over my face.

Down the coast we pushed East to land at Moss Harbor near Monterey. Wind and currents dictated that we come in late at night. We crossed the freighter lanes, glanging left and right for big ship lights, and pushed ahead into a still fog. “Let's get off the sail and motor in,” John said, and I cranked down the mainsail and switched on the ship lights as John started the little motor. I pulled out charts and we agreed on a course and nosed ahead into the blackness. Some time later a white point of light showed dimly in the dark mist. “The southern outer marker bouy,” John said, “Let's cut a little left of it. Let's....let's go left of it and then go into harbor entrance.” But something was wrong. John was tentative, which was unusual, and some sense gave me unease; the water was particularly still, but at the same time we could hear breakers ashore, meaning that we were very close to land. “Let's head for the bouy,” John repeated, “We'll cut past it when we get there.” We both knew that we shouldn't have to do that, that we should be sure what the light was, but it sounded right...even though some intangible thing was not right, I could feel it and from John's voice I could hear it. But we knew what we were doing, did we not? Our minds contained archives of experience outdoors. Of course we would reach the bouy, cut left of it, and enter the harbor in complete darkness.

Grinning with confidence I gunned the engine. We would approach the bouy, cut past it, and land in darkness, it was now a sort of mantra in my mind. We closed in on the bouy light. It sat rock solid. Even from the heaving deck, something about that was incorrect. Riding on water, even quite still water, it should be in motion as well, a motion perhaps very slight but one that we could detect, but we did not detect any motion in the light at all. John and I each realized the gap between theory and reality at the same moment: we had driven past the breakers and into very shallow water, and with the waves now booming and the light still holding rock steady, everything was perfectly wrong. Putting the final puzzle piece into place, John said “That's not the bouy, it's a land light.” Under my expert hand we were driving at seven knots for the house-sized boulders of the harbor entrance pier, maybe 50 yards away. John looked back at me from his stance on the prow and I hauled on the rudder. Now the question was whether we could turn in time, or go aground. I didn't know whether I should kill the engine to slow us down, or gun it to turn us faster: I decided on gunning it. We turned and ran back out seaward. Who knows how close we'd come to the rocks. We laughed well on our way out; maybe I had not laughed so hard for some years. The light, what we'd so much wanted to believe was a beacon of safety, was on firm land, and it had pulled us in almost to the rocks. In the dark, we'd seen what we wanted to see.

Out past the breakers we killed the engine and anchored in water so still that it could not be the open ocean but must be a bay, which was confirmed by the short anchor line needed. We sat in the cockpit, the air stinging with diesel fumes.

“What the hell was that” John laughed. Sipping from a canteen, I said,

“We just about drove this thing straight into the rocks!”

(c) 2013 Cameron M. Smith

Monday, March 11, 2013

Test Demonstration

A long day, demonstrating the system at Terrazign, a local NASA subcontractor, who showed us their incredible, massive workshop. A few pictures above. Pictures of the workshop on the way. Found a major flaw in the breathing gas delivery system, but it's at least now identified and I can fix it, like I've fixed all other system flaws!

Friday, March 8, 2013

'Fate is the Hunter'

Fantastic writing by aviator Ernest K. Gann [pictured above in his scriptorium], author of 'Fate is the Hunter': "Ross taught me to taxi in this particularly unwieldy airplane at good speed in strong cross winds without uncertain wandering or mighty heaves on the brake system. We had no windshield wipers. So he taught me how to land in heavy rain, how to split my attention between what little could be seen of a runway over the nose, and, leaning back somewhat to avoid a complete drenching, see and adjudge much more through the window at my side. He delighted in all such situations and managed to pass on his lack of trepidation until I too began to relish the difficult rather than the easy."

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Copenhagen Suborbitals Connection

I've recently joined the Copenhagen Suborbitals team; here's a video ( direct link) [embedded above] summarizing the project. I'll join up with them in mid-August, right after delivering the plenary talk at the Mars Society's annual meeting at the University of Colorado, Boulder (more on that, later).

Update - Atlas of Human Prehistory Figure

Some updates to the sample image for the Atlas of Human Prehistory; now the diagram, with its attendant page of text, is feeling right. Time to head home; a lot to do to pack up the system!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Image for the Atlas of Human Prehistory

A new book project is underway: the Atlas of Human Prehistory for Cognella Academic Publishing. The image above is one of over a hundred maps I'll produce, each discussed in a page of text remarking on the various archaeological sites, geographical features and so on. This is a lot of fun, as I get to combine my love of maps and cartography with my love of human prehistory! To be published in Fall 2014.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Clock Reset -- And Ticking!

Update to the summer schedule: looks like 150 days and counting until the pressure suit test in an altitude chamber in Copenhagen, Denmark! This weekend Kip Silverman, from my writing group. brought over his daughter, Sam, who took the pilot seat and worked through the electrics controls for a few minutes. In the photo she's in the helmet, having a great time! This weekend will be BUSY with disassembling the whole system for transport across town for a full pressure demonstration -- more on that later. Lower photo shows the suit pressurized, in Kazbek position with knee restraints installed; after a decent test I have mentally redesigned these for fast escape, and will be stitching those together post haste!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Gas System Work

Top photo: Right side is all electric controls, left side (here) is all gas controls. This is the breathing gas and suit pressurization gas control panel. I can breathe through either of two demand regulators (like a SCUBA, but built for aviation, you breathe in and get breathing gas) and if those fail, either get breathing gas by manually pulling one of two hand levers, or pressing one of two foot pedals. Six ways to deliver breathing gas. It'd be pretty a hefty dose of bad luck if they all failed! They're all separately valved so a free flow in one any can be sealed off while switching to any other. Lower photo: Pull for oxygen! A backup breathing gas delivery lever made from a good spring, a lever valve and zipties. All proof-of-concept to be 'hard wired' in permanent fittings once the system is proved--which will be in the next two months.