Crowdsourced Explorer

Or: Privatizing the Cosmos?

The Ramp Rules...In Space

"Crowdsource me up, Scotty."

On August 12, 1978, the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) was launched into space on a heliocentric (sun-centered) orbit.

Originally launched as the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, NASA intended ICE to investigate the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field. The unmanned probe finished that mission successfully and was then repurposed into being the first spacecraft to visit a comet. It was also the first spacecraft to maintain an orbit at the L1 Lagrange point.

So, ICE/ISEE-3 was a pretty big deal, NASA reluctantly cut contact in 1997. They made brief contact with it in 1999, just to check that it was still there. In 2008, as it happened, the probe was not only still there; the thing was still functioning. Then, in 2014, as ICE approached Earth again, NASA determined that the probe continued to function…and maybe it was possible to bring it back into operation.

NASA toyed with the idea briefly, but they ended up doing nothing (yes, it’s always easier to do nothing).

Then a remarkable thing happened: a group of interested scientists, engineers, and programmers began a grassroots attempt to bring the satellite back to life. With NASA's blessing and some assistance, they began their campaign to revive the probe.

They crowd-funded their expenses and actually began to acquire all the defunct, obsolete hardware they'd need reanimate the probe. On May 29th, the team successfully made contact with the probe.

Though they were able to fire the thrusters one time, mechanical issues prevented them from doing so again due to the loss of the nitrogen gas pressurizing the fuel tanks. They eventually lost contact on September 16th.

It seems unlikely that they'll ever regain contact. Yet this was an incredible milestone: theirs was the first crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, citizen-driven planetary space mission.

That's one heck of an achievement.

Telegraphing Human Communication

Or: The Dot and Dash of Connecting

In 1838, the world changed forever when Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone introduced the first commercial electric telegraph in England.

The early telegraph systems were crude, only transmitting Morse code (and competing telegraph codes) a few tens of miles. They soon—and rapidly—began growing longer and more efficient. Within a few short decades, we were stretching cables around the world.

Laying Cable

Laying Cable

It's a bit astonishing to think that this technology existed alongside the early telegraphs. The first transatlantic cables were laid in the 1850s by the H.M.S. Agamemnon, a converted British sailing warship.

This sort of thing gets left out of how we often think about history; it was absolutely chock full of anachronism. (Just like today, people didn't adopt then to the newest technology all at once. Sailing ships still existed alongside steam ships and telegraphs. In fact, clipper ships, a type of sailing ship, remained some of the fastest ships on the planet well into the early 1900s.)

As the telegraphs spread, the world got smaller and smaller. The phrase “global village” might have been coined in the 1960s to talk about television, but it really started with the laying of the great undersea telegraph cables.

This was nowhere more strongly exemplified than by the eruption of Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. The news of its eruption actually raced ahead of the shock wave itself, and many people could identify the source of the massive soundwave that traveled around a large portion of the globe before it reached them.

The Krakatoa eruption was the first time the entire world was paying attention to a single natural disaster and, in many ways, it was a real game changer. The British didn’t learn of Napoleon’s defeat until four days after. It took mere hours to hear of the eruption of Krakatoa, halfway around the planet.

We can brag about how much the Internet has changed the planet, but the Internet is merely an extension of what the telegraph cables started.

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar—
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world—here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat—
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth -
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed
their father Time
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o'er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, 'Let us be one!'

— “The Deep-Sea Cables” by Rudyard Kipling

A Truly Grand Old Ditch

More Locks and Funiculars

The Ramp Rules & The Ditch is Cool

A Boat on the Grand Old Ditch

Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, also known as the C&O Canal and the Grand Old Ditch, began in 1828 and finished in 1850.

It reached a final length of 184.5 miles, extending between Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC. Coal was the primary good shipped—though businesses also shipped lumber, limestone for construction, sand, flour, salt, and much more.

The canal operated until 1924, when it was finally shut down due to competition from the railroads, along with major flood damage that year.

Interestingly, the mule-drawn barges were often operated by families that lived on them, especially in the earlier years of the canal. The families would all work together to run these barges; not surprisingly, the mothers were the main figures in running everything. They steered the boats, raised the children, and did all the housework.

The men just took care of the mules and the heavy lifting.

If you've never tried to raise children while running a house, well, let's just say I'll take the heavy lifting any day. (I've never had any illusions about Maggie being the most important part of my family.)

While it operated, though, the C&O Canal contained some of the most impressive engineering designed for a canal. To aid ships in moving uphill, the canal held 74 canal locks, or enclosures: ships sailed in, the lock closed behind them, then fill slowly with water, raising the height of the ship to the next elevation level. They also built 11 aqueducts for crossing major streams and more than 240 culverts to cross smaller ones.

In addition to this was the Paw Paw tunnel, which stretched nearly a kilometer in length, the construction of which almost bankrupted the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. They were forced to end construction early, failing to get all the way to Pittsburgh.

My favorite part of the canal, though, was the C&O Boat Elevator. It served to lower boats down past Georgetown, where traffic jams tended to build up. It operated exactly like a funicular, only for boats—lowering them 600 feet on the diagonal and 40 feet in elevation.

The downward journey was entirely powered by gravity, while water powered turbines would lift the empty boat carrying caisson back to the top. It's a big step up from the Diolkos. Another great example here of human ingenuity in action.



So, Yard Ramp GuyGo have yourself a happy new year:

“Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.”

— Kahlil Gibran

Supersized Garbage Collection

Patching the Patch

The Deep Blue Sea

Last time around, I took on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's a floating collection of garbage, about the size of the state of Texas and largely composed of floating bits of plastic. The patch is an alarming thing, and I’ve placed it solidly in my “Cautionary Tales” category, which now has 35 entries since I began blogging.

Lest you think I’m all about doom-and-gloom scenarios, I also discover rays of hope in my reading and research. This is one of them:

A young inventor thinks that he's found a solution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Boyan Slat, born in 1994, (yes, I did say he was young), spent much of his youth near and in the ocean. Time and again, he encountered plastic in the waters. Eventually, he grew really bothered by how pessimistic people were about developing solutions to ocean plastics. And so, in a fine example of youthful idealism balanced by realism, he decided to do something about it himself.

Boyan’s project, The Ocean Cleanup, is developing a large-scale, passive method of removing floating plastic. Essentially, his invention is a large, floating U-shaped pipe that will gather the plastic bits as it drifts.

To ensure that the device collects enough, it will employ a sea anchor—hanging down in the water, increasing drag via an extremely un-hydrodynamic shape— to slow down, so that the plastic flows faster through the gyre than the pipe. This is designed to ensure the plastic runs into—and not under—the capturing pipe.

Naturally, the project has its critics. Most of the plastic in the ocean is made up of particles too small for the system to gather. Quite a bit of plastic ends up on the seafloor, as well. Both of these criticisms, and quite a few of the others, tend to focus on the idea that this project doesn't do enough or is inefficient.

Those are legitimate criticisms, but they also ignore the fact that at least Boyan Slat and his project are doing something. Something is a lot better than nothing. And nothing is about exactly what we've been doing so far to solve this problem.



Yard Ramp Guy: Quotations are plentiful. Just look:

“Jazz is a spectacularly accurate model of democracy and a look into our redemptive future possibilities.”

— Ken Burns

The Monongahela-Duquesne Connection

Fun with Funiculars


It's a Steep Slope, Sherlock

It's been a while since I've written about one of my favorite subjects. And since this started out as a blog all about ramps, it feels about time to ramp up once again.

First, a refresher course on the funicular. It’s a railway on a steep incline—often 45 degrees or more—that contain a pair of cars that are attached with a cable and that counterbalance one another. When one car moves up, the other moves down. I've written about them before (see HERE). I think they're fairly extraordinary.

End of refresher course.

The Monongahela Incline is America's oldest continually operating funicular. Located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it stretches from the flood plain of the Monongahela River up to the top of Mount Washington, a neighborhood with one of the most beautiful views in any city in America. (When the funicular was built in 1870, however, the neighborhood was known as Coal Hill.)

Around 1860, Pittsburgh's expanding industrial base began drawing German immigrants (among others) to the area. Since the industrial districts already filled up most of the flood plain, the new workers began settling on the hillsides nearby.

With few good roads and little public transit, the trek to and from work was up and down the steep and frequently muddy hill. Germany, however, had employed funiculars for some time already, so residents quickly proposed the opening of their own funicular. 

A second funicular reaching the neighborhood, the Duquesne Incline, opened in 1877. Originally a cargo carrier, engineers later converted it for passenger use.

The Duquesne Incline remains open today, except for a one-year closure in the 1960s, when it was saved by a community fundraiser.

Other funiculars have been built, but only the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines made it out of the 1960s…along with some people I know.



Yes, Yard Ramp Guy: I’ve read your comment this week regarding our not meeting at the center of our alphabetical quote-off. According to my calculations (a 1986 Texas Instruments calculator), you and I had a 50 percent chance of landing on the same letter. The problem—and the beauty—here is that we’re both of us consistent. Alas, we’re like two ships that pass in the night. Not to quote Manilow, or anything.

“Management: An activity or art where those who have not yet succeeded and those who have proved unsuccessful are led by those who have not yet failed.”

— Paulson Frenckner