Orion: They Belted Out the Name

NASA's Orion Spacecraft

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft


NASA recently had an unmanned test flight of their Orion spacecraft—a new vessel meant to replace the space shuttle, and to take humans beyond low earth orbit for the first time since Apollo 17.

I’ve been following the program with avid interest for years now. I’m a sucker for the space program. Always have been, always will be. Orion is reminiscent of Apollo in many ways, yet now it’s a bigger, beefier Apollo craft. One thing that bugs me about Orion, though, is the name.

See, years ago there was another Orion. Project Orion never actually got a vehicle up into orbit, but that’s probably a good thing, since it was fueled by nukes.

Project Orion

Project Orion

Note that I didn’t say nuclear power, either. I said nukes, as in actual nuclear bombs. Project Orion flew by detonating nuclear weapons right behind it to launch itself forward. It would have worked, too: absurdly well, in fact. It would have made anywhere in the solar system easily accessible, in fact, and may even have opened up the neighboring stars to us.

The real problem, though, was that most of the designs involved launching from the Earth’s surface, which, as it turns out, was a bit of a bad idea. Detonating a big sequence of nukes in the atmosphere? Good way to give everyone in a thousand miles cancer. The program was canceled in ’63 after the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

It’s not to say the new Orion isn’t impressive in its own right: there are plans to use it for prospective Mars missions, or even for potential asteroid explorations. I just think that the government could have chosen a better name for the thing.

I do know this: I plan on being there for the first manned launch.

The Mark of Civilization

When you think about the Roman Empire, one of the first things that pops into mind is their aqueduct system…unless you’ve been watching too much TV, in which case you’re likely thinking of their gladiators or legions.

Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Roman Aqueduct, c. 1st century, Spain

I feel pretty comfortable saying that the reason Rome was so stable for so long was due to their roads, aqueducts, sewer system, and other civil projects. It always grates me a little bit when people talk about the gladiatorial games being used to pacify the population—they certainly did that, but this was secondary to having clean water, plenty of food, and sanitation.

Thanks to the Roman Empire’s extensive civil improvements, Rome itself had a population of more than a MILLION people. That’s just nuts for a city in the ancient world. Athens maybe had 300K, and it was enormous for its time. There are only a few other ancient cities of comparable size at all.

That’s where Rome’s real success lay: not in conquest but in civil planning and construction. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record in this blog space, going on about how people focused on war as the key part of history bugs me. (Maggie jokes sometimes that she is worried I’ll start buying Grateful Dead shirts and growing a ponytail.) It’s not about hating war, though. It’s about acknowledging that what we build and how we build it is, ultimately, the most important legacy of a society.

Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment as President? The Interstate Highway System. What do we remember about the Egyptians? The pyramids. If you look at any society from more than a couple decades or so, what part of it lasts? Their construction.

The aqueducts have stood for millennia. I rest my case.


Photo: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Mapping the Oculus Rift

I’ve never really been a fan of videogames. I don’t hate them, by any means, or even think they’re a waste of time—I figure they’ve got to be about on par with TV there. I just never got into them. Played a couple arcade machines back in the day, just bought the grandkids a new system for Christmas, but never really got into them myself.

Over the past couple of years, though, a new gadget has popped up I find pretty interesting. It’s called the Oculus Rift, and it’s a virtual reality headset.

I’ve always been intrigued by virtual reality as an idea. It would be incredibly useful for 3D modeling, among other things, not just for videogames. In the real world, though, it has been plagued with problems for decades, ranging from disorienting motion blur to extremely poor graphics to nausea and even vomiting. Most of the problems were caused by technology simply not yet being there, of course, but many of them were also matters of design philosophy.

Here’s a good comparison: making a map isn’t as easy as you’d think. You can’t just cut the surface off of a globe and plaster it on a piece of paper. In order to get it to lay flat, you’d need to cut it or stretch it somehow. By laying flat, of course, I mean showing a halfway accurate image as well. If you cut it, you end up with one of those maps that looks like a sliced up orange peel. It’ll be accurate, but ugly and hard to read.

If you stretch it out, instead, you end up having a hundred different new problems to solve. Your continents are going to be seriously distorted For example, Africa and Greenland (yep, I know: Greenland isn’t technically a continent) usually get much of the brunt of this. Africa, notably, is usually presented about the size of South America, when it actually dwarfs South America.

I won’t go into too many technical details that I’d likely hash up. The Oculus Rift is, after all, a gaming device, which is not my subject of expertise. Still, the creators are essentially going about creating the Rift with a design philosophy that is very different than what’s come before. Instead of just putting a 3D view right in front of you and calling it a day, they’ve actually designed the screens inside the goggles to replicate actual human fields of view.

They’ve included motion sensors capable of allowing you to look around in a realistic way. So to finish the comparison, they’re not just trying to plaster the skin of the globe on a sheet of paper; they’re actually trying to make it fit. Actually, I guess it’s sorta the opposite of that, they’re trying to take a map and refit it around the globe again, and…

Well, never mind. You get the idea, right? It makes sense to me, at least.

A Technological Revival

During the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was an unlikely technological revival: airships.

The Hindenburg disaster sunk commercial airships for most of the twentieth century, leaving pretty much only the Goodyear blimps.

During the great economy of the ’90s, investors lined up to toss money at anything that popped up its head, which ended up turning out pretty badly for many of them. There were several airship startups among them.

The Aerium

The Aerium

Cargolifter AG, which opened its doors in ’96 was a German company with a plan to build truly colossal airship freight lifters. The initial plan was to build one with a 160 ton lifting capacity, but there was talk of constructing airships several times that large. The company spent a nutty amount of money constructing a hangar, called the Aerium, for the airships at an old airfield. The Aerium is, to this day, the fourth largest building in the world. You could fit an aircraft carrier inside with room to spare. (I don’t know why you’d want to, though).

Before Cargolifter AG couldn’t get anything other than a small test balloon built, though; they ran out of money and had to fold in 2002. The building was sold to a resort company, who turned it into a gargantuan indoor tropical park, featuring a swimming pool the size of a lake with waves and beaches, miles of jungle paths, spas, and so on and so forth. (Now there’s somewhere I can convince Maggie to go).

The Ukrainian company Aeros is a slightly more cheerful story. They already had a line of products to keep them in business, manufacturing hang-gliders and other ultra light craft. They’re sinking their budget into R&D for the Aeroscraft, a huge, sleek, rigid airship that looks like something out of Star Wars. It’s not a strictly lighter-than-air vehicle, and it also features huge vertical thrusters. They actually flew their prototype this year, after a decade of development.

Maggie and I love hot air balloons, so here’s keeping my fingers crossed we’ll get to start taking commercial airship flights soon enough.

A Different Kind of Motion

My family goes to a lot of movies. None of us are film buffs or anything like that, and I can’t say I’ve ever watched any of those film award shows, but we do end up going to the movies quite a bit. I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable about film technology as I am about ramps, but I do like to read about it.

One of my favorite movies from the last decade or two was that King Kong remake. The big ape himself is done pretty spectacularly by a fellow named Andy Serkis, using motion capture.

The way they do it is pretty nifty: they first put Serkis in this weird, full-body suit, made of latex or something like it. His face is then covered with a clear plastic mask filled with little holes. They mark his face with little dots through all the holes before removing it.

The little dots also cover his body suit. They film him moving around and doing his scenes. Then, in the computer, they use those little dots as…well, anchors, essentially, in order to layer the CGI over Serkis. They then build up the character using the dots and the framework between them, rather than animating the whole shebang themselves.

There are a lot more dots on the face, too; that part is harder to animate, so it needs a lot more detail. It still takes a ton of work. Movies are just crazy expensive for a good reason, and not just because of the huge paychecks the actors get. There is a ton of work and expense put into it.

King Kong isn’t the only motion capture character Serkis does, either: he did Gollum from The Lord of the Rings movies, and the main ape from the new Planet of the Apes movies, too, though I never saw those. (I never liked the original too much, mostly thanks to Charlton Heston. He’s an overacting ham. Now, if Planet of the Apes had had, say, Clint Eastwood…)

The technique has definitely evolved quite a bit since King Kong, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to just dismiss old technology as boring. In fact, it’s often much more interesting.