Monday, June 13, 2011

We're moving

And by we I of course mean I. Moving to a more permanent home at - just registered, just wordpressed and sitting, waiting for the right header. Ideally the few people who have enjoyed things thus far (and I thank you!) will be redirected to my new site, but until that potentially nightmarish task is complete, please know that I am still writing about obscure things, I'm just somewhere else. No more blogspot VPN madness (thanks, Politburo), just an easy url with a nice template to play around with. The same old space science, and the same old stolen pictures from Air & Space Magazine. See you there.

Take care friends,

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reality TV on Mars

Men at Work (from left) Alexey Sitev, Romain Charles, Alexander
Smoleevsky, Sukhrob Kamolov, Wang Yue, and Diego Urbano
Somewhere between here and Mars, a hypothetical spaceship is returning to earth. It docked with the International Space Station before floating to the red planet, where it sent a lander and three men to the Martian surface for a month and hosted the first Chinese New Year celebration in space. Its six-member crew grow their own vegetables and enjoy telling each other stories from back home. They rarely get to talk with friends and family, and it's been a year since they saw anyone other than themselves. They say they're are beginning to look forward to reentering our atmosphere. Trouble is, they never left Moscow.
But don’t let that bother you. Mars-500, a very odd psychological experiment run by the Russian Academy of Sciences, is just as legitimate as any other space mission. The volunteers live together in a completely isolated (albeit futuristic) multi-room “spaceship” equipped with personal bedrooms, a medical quarantine, a gym, kitchen, and Mars lander. There are no windows, and they have very limited contact with anyone outside the craft. All of their transmissions to and from mission control are subject to simulated 20-minute delays. The only difference between it and true space flight is that they’ve never left earth—there’s just an empty hanger out in the suburbs.
The Spaceship.
Official reports are positive at the one-year mark. There have been no major surprises over the course of the experiment, the chief purpose of which is to test the physical and psychological effects of deep space travel and extreme isolation.
Each member has been asked a series of questions. What do they miss most? Naturally, each of them misses their families, fresh air and sunshine. But there’s also the food. Team commander Alexei Sitev wishes he could eat fried meat, and China’s Wang Yue misses his national food with every meal. Wang told earth that he must make a “complicated choice” everyday when dealing with his unhappy stomach. He eats the same rations day in and day out, he says, dreaming of his mother’s cooking.
China's Wang Yue and France's
Romain Charles practice their Hanzi.
They lead busy lives in space. The men get eight and a half hours of sleep each night, an hour of physical exercise toward the end of each day, and they generally log six hours of hard work on something, be it simulated dockings with the International Space Station or handling the occasional emergency. They also take turns flying the space ship.
Each member likes to relax in his own way, though with the lack of resources their personal time revolves around books, video games, Chinese calligraphy and movies. Italy’s Diego Urbina enjoys flight simulators. 
“I kind of have this little thing for going and flying a small plane when I get out,” he reports from the ground. As to what the rest want to do when the last hatch finally opens, there is lots of talk of fresh air and travel.
Urbina, along with researcher Aleksandr Smoleevsky and Wang, recently landed on Mars, which has been recreated in a dark room with lights shining from small holes poked through its black walls. They donned space suits and walked across the simple dirt covered floor, planting flags and collecting Martian dirt. Their “lander” had only bunk beds, bare research tools and a small bathroom. 
         The other three—Commander Sitev, France’s Romaine Charles and team physician Sukhrob Kamolov—remained in imaginary Mars orbit, circling the red planet for the whole month of February, where they had a strange and lonely Valentines day.
Real Mission Control, phony Mars walk.
Urbano and Smoleevsky watched by the media.
But they have become good friends. They all said it was inevitable. They plan surprise parties for one another, celebrate each other’s national holidays, and dressed up for Halloween.
When asked if they believed their work would be beneficial to mankind, they seemed optimistic. Urbina said peer reviews after the fact will lead to more experiments, and move things toward an actual trip in the future. Sitev gave a curt answer—“I should not participate in fool’s errand.”
Reportedly, the isolation isn’t as lonely as one would expect. And with the bulk of the trip behind them, the crew has confidence in what they are doing. Though, undoubtedly, imaginary space travel is unlike anything they have ever experienced. “When we get to Earth,” Urbina said, “We will feel initially like it is another planet.”
The crew on Halloween.

That's all. For more photos and information, visit the official site. See you all soon!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

To No One in Particular

The gold records.
            “May all be well,” begins an 8-track recording commissioned by NASA in the late-70’s. “Greetings to you, whoever you are,” the message continues, suddenly in Greek. Someone says, “Let there be peace everywhere,” in Bengali and then, in Chinese—“Have you eaten?”
            And so on, fifty-five times. It was 1977, and NASA planned to send its two Voyager spacecraft toward interstellar space—the void between stars, not planets—and they began wondering what the unmanned pods might meet. Spaceman Carl Sagan helped convince them to send along human artifacts and greetings. “[A] Bottle in the cosmic ocean,” he called it enthusiastically. Both vehicles were loaded with two gold-plated records, and scientists hope that whoever’s out there will know how to play them.
John Hersey's rendition of the
Voyager pods.

            The recordings begin with multi-lingual greetings, and then play sounds from nature, human laughter and the noise of engines and rockets. Extraterrestrials may listen to thunder and birdsong, look at photos of the Great Wall and see demonstrations of eating and drinking (the latter is a picture a young man pouring water into his mouth from a large pitcher).
And then, of course, there’s the music. Bach appears three times, beginning with his Brandenburg concerto. Louis Armstrong plays “Melancholy Blues,” and Chuck Berry plays “Johnny B. Goode.” The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is there, as are Senegalese drumming and Peruvian wedding music. There’s also Georgian folk music, pygmy girls from Zaire, and Australian aboriginal singing. Sagan wanted to include the Beatles’ song “Here Comes the Sun,” but EMI wouldn’t allow it.
Technicians install the disks on the side of Voyager 1.
The Voyager pods left earth toward the end of summer in 1977, and won’t come near another star for close to 40,000 years. Voyager 1 is now at the edge of our solar system, flying where the solar winds from our sun begin to turn back and flow sideways. It still sends and receives transmissions, and technicians guess the pods will be able to contact home through the 20’s. By then Voyager 1 should be all alone, flying with its old records through interstellar space. We have so much more than we did in 1977. But for Voyager 1 and 2 there are still just a few technicians, sitting in Barstow and Madrid, sending the occasional, lonely radio message.
            President Jimmy Carter included a personal message, fitting with the imaginative aesthetic of the time capsule. “We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours” he says to no one in particular. “We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations.”
There we are.
            Since leaving earth, the Voyagers have sent back some very interesting pictures from so far away. Perhaps the most famous, Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot," shows the earth as a small speck, taken from approximately 3.8 billions miles. They have also detailed Saturn, Jupiter, and both of their larger moon systems.
            In that summer before the launch Sagan fell in love with a friend, Ann Druyan. It was unexpected, they said, but they weren’t surprised. “I’ve been waiting ten years for this!” he supposedly yelled over the phone. After talking about it one night, they decided to include one more recording.
            Druyan spent one morning in a hospital in New York City, where doctors recorded her brain waves. “I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey,” she writes in Sagan’s book, Billions and Billions. “To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization.”
            She thought about the history of life on earth, from the time before us according to our scattered ideas to our time now, which for her was a small room with a window overlooking a busy street in New York. She thought about human life and the violence and poverty that hurt so many people, and about the great leaders of history and the people most important to her. “Toward the end,” she writes, “I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.
It’s possible that the electrical impulses of her brain may be converted back into thoughts, whenever or if ever the contents are ruffled through by extraterrestrials. Sagan died in 1996. Ann says that whenever she feels down, she thinks about those small gold disks, floating out to sea at 35,000 miles an hour.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Amateurs in Space Photography

Last year I graduated college and moved back home, where I got a job as a bus boy and saved money. Most nights after work I would surf the internet. I promised myself it wouldn't be more than a few months, and it ended up being around 4. Each night I put my tips in a white envelope that I hid in my bookcase, and I had more midnight job interviews over Skype than I can remember, trying to find work overseas.

Eventually I had about $2500, and I bought a Canon 7d. About a week after I bought it, I went to San Lorenzo's Seminary near my house in Santa Ynez, California and took this picture at about 2am.

I enjoyed it very much. But I eventually got that job overseas and moved to China, where the pollution is too thick to see anything besides the occasional airplane. I hope to go up to Siberia early next year, and there should be stars up there. And if I make it as far north as I want, there should be plenty of nights for taking pictures.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 5

Space Hotels in the Future and Where the Chinese Might be Going
Qian Xuesen with his wife
and kids.
In 2009, Qian Xuesen died. He didn’t make it to 100, but he came very close (97). Caltech and China alike mourned his death.
Like the rest of Chinese life, time seems to be going by a little faster each year for the country’s aerospace engineers, and much has been planned. The aforementioned Chang’e lunar missions have been successful so far. And there is talk of mining the lunar surface for Helium-3, which, when inhaled, may help scientists create an MRI-like image of a lung functioning in real time (or serve as a hyper-efficient form of alternative fuel). Someone should ask the rabbit about that.
Later this year the space station Tiangong should launch, as well as the unmanned Shenzhou 8 that is supposed to dock with it, as are 9, 10, and 11. A giant space station is planned later, in a few years, we’ll see. On the horizon—a lunar station, which will be a port into deep space.
But elsewhere the culture is changing, and the Chinese have a great deal of competition. NASA has lost a great deal of its funding, which will ironically allow for a new space age in the US and abroad—commercial and civilian space exploration.
Many companies have sprouted up. SpaceX in California is most likely to succeed—they have launched rockets from Cape Canaveral, and are the only private enterprise to have a recoverable satellite. Boeing in Seattle, WA has also received around one hundred million in funding from NASA. Virgin Galactic, lead by British mogul Charles Branson, is the surfer dude in the space yearbook, but they are making headlines and a lot of progress. Just last year, a Brooklyn man and his son tied an iPhone to a balloon that carried it up past 100 mile-an-hour thermal winds to a height of 100,000 feet, where it recorded video of the clear curvature of the earth. A Russian Entrepreneur named Sergei Kostenko announced he is building a space hotel.
Richard Branson (left), CEO of Virgin Galactic, aboard his spaceship.
And Google is sponsoring a contest between civilian groups—clubs, really—that have the money and the expertise to design and build their own ships and plan their own missions. 29 teams are competing for $30 million in prizes for the first teams to send a rover to the moon.
The plans are ambitious, but they are also very strange. A German team’s proposed rover looks something like a pool cleaner, with two giant wheels and a small box sitting on the axel. The Brazilian rover is supposed to inflate, and China’s looks like a race car. The prize money should be delivered by or before 2015.
President Obama with
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in Florida

            A new space race is beginning, wherein SpaceX has offered discounts on their rockets to each team participating in Google’s competition, hoping to move things along (and make money). It feels so very different from the nationalistic rivalry between the US and Russia in the 60’s, and much less harmful.
But while entrepreneurs across the globe are planning missions across the Kármán Line whether their home countries have space programs or not, China’s government is the largest state employer in the industry. India is becoming more involved, and so is Japan, but China is by far the most active of the governments still interested. 
And they are different from anyone among their peers, both past and present. "The mastery of outer space will be a requisite for military victory,” said Shen Zhongchang of the Chinese Navy Research Institute, whatever that means. There are many guesses as to what they are planning, and what they have already done, and experts continue wondering who will run the Pacific Ocean in ten years—the US Aircraft Carriers, or something Chinese.
Italian-American Donald Tito went to space ten years ago, becoming the first space tourist on April 28, 2001. He orbited the earth in a Russian Soyuz craft for two days and floated around in the ISS, listening to Opera and looking out the windows. When he landed in an empty field in Kazakhstan, he climbed out of the pod and told a bunch of Russians that he’d just returned from paradise. Feng Ru experienced the same feeling in Oakland, just before he crashed his first plane. And Qian was so proud, though so bullied, as he built his country’s program from nothing.
But he eventually got recognition.
What will come next, as the West makes money and the Chinese, supposedly, build their strength, will be known to us in time. We can only wait to see, or read in the news afterward, or try to understand from CCTV. Over and Out!

Friday, May 6, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 4

China Sends Monkeys, Fish, Man to Space
But in 1991, it finally happened—a reasonable president and budget, technology that was already half built, and a good timetable. President Jiang Zemin accepted head designer Ren Xin Min’s proposal, and in October of that year Qian retired.
The new program was called Program 921, and its stages of development, mapped out long in advance, look like a table of contents. Under it’s three phases—first a manned space flight, second a spacelab, and third (much later) a 20-ton space station of Chinese design—are numerous sub-systems that carefully plan the next twenty years of work. It began on January 1, 1992.
The most convincing members argued that it was best to start humbly, and so they did. The design for China’s ship came from the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, designed three decades before and still in use today.
Consisting of three modules—the orbital in the nose, the descent module in the middle, and the service module in the rear—it has never been “fixed,” only improved. Two solar wings fold out from the service module once it enters space, and the modules separate according to the mission’s plans. The descent module always carries the crew back across the atmosphere.
A Shenzhou, sans solar wings. (From top) Orbital Module,
Descent Module, and the white Service Module.
President Jiang named the Chinese ship Shenzhou, meaning Divine Vessel, or something (it’s not entirely translatable). It differs from the Soyuz only in that the Chinese had newer technology to start with, and so they have added a second set of solar wings and a control system to the front orbital module. This allows the unmanned pod to be flown autonomously after the crew flies home, which they have used excessively ever since. A Chinese Shenzhou weighs roughly 17,000 pounds, is thirty feet long, and its solar panels cover roughly 120 square feet.
In 1998 they had 12 astronaut candidates and began training. That year, construction of the International Space Station (ISS) began. You have probably seen it before on clear nights, but thought it was just another star. Whenever it’s visible, it is one of the brightest objects in the night sky.
Shenzhou 1 in Inner Mongolia, 1999
By 1999, their entire space program infrastructure was rebuilt or improved, and they were ready to begin testing. Their new tracking ships left port, causing the rest of the world to scratch their heads. One went off the coast of Australia; another floated near the International Date Line. On November 19th, the first unmanned test flight launched. Shenzhou 1 orbited and returned as mechanically ordered by one of the tracking ships chugging up and down the Namibian coast, and swayed underneath its parachute into the Gobi Desert.
In 2001 Shenzhou 2 launched, carrying all sorts of things—a monkey, a dog, several mice, and a rabbit (not the rabbit). It even had seeds from Taiwan. Unidentified marine life, probably very small, flew as well. No photos have been released in the ten years since its launch, and rumors have spread that its chute failed, causing it to crash land. Keeping silent didn’t brush away the rumors. One doctor did give an interview, though, that quickly deteriorated and ended with him yelling about a fruit fly experiment that did or maybe didn’t happen, but was supposed to see the results of reproduction in zero-gravity. He stormed out, saying flies had nothing to do with sending a Chinese astronaut into space.
But before the mission ever failed or succeeded, the ship released the orbital module while still in orbit, and it flew away. It circled the earth for the next half year on its own.
Shenzhou 3 saw a dress rehearsal. Pilot candidates sat inside the ship, pushing buttons. They ran out just before launch and were replaced by a dummy. Shenzhou 3 was also equipped with a full electronic payload in its orbital module, which circled the earth for 232 days after the initial mission, carrying such weird things as a space crystallization furnace, protein crystal equipment, and cameras with 600mm aperture, which is the sort that photographers use to take pictures of hummingbirds. What it took pictures of is unclear.
Experts have stared at press photos for the last decade, pointing at strange looking antennas and boxes on the nose of each new Shenzhou spacecraft. Most are worried about the cameras, and what they are taking pictures of. They also look at the ELINT (or Electronic Signals Intelligence) built into the nose of each ship—a little tool with three antennas that gathers information from earth.
The Chinese may be using an ELINT to catalogue the RADAR capability of the traveling US Navy, or maybe not. Whatever they are doing, some believe that their orbital modules have circled the earth for nearly 90% of the time since 2002. “That’s a long time,” we’ve been told.
Chinese scientists promised they were close to a manned flight. Pilots trained inside Shenzhou 4 in late 2002, and stayed at the Jiuquan launch site in the days surrounding the launch. The ship flew with a sleeping bag, food and medication. Politburo members attended the launch, which occurred in the lead up to the US campaign in Iraq. Foreign journalists began arriving in Bagdad, but the Chinese supposedly watched the first several months of the war from unmanned orbit.
Yang Liwei, pilot of Shenzhou 5
And then, in October 2003, the news became true. The Mission Insignia was a picture of Chang’e flying among bright stars, and the patch was placed on the shoulder of a space suit. The day before the flight, pilot candidate Yang Liwei was asked to step aside for a moment, where he was told he would fly into space tomorrow. He woke up early the next morning, ate a light breakfast, and orbited the earth 14 times.
Before his trip to space, Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin said that his entire life seemed like one beautiful moment, and wrote a letter to his wife and daughter. American Alan Shepard sat in the capsule, listening to the countdown, and reportedly thought about how the rocket under his seat was built by the lowest bidders, and cursed quietly under his breath. Yang, a quiet man, told mission control that he felt fine, and ate shredded pork with garlic and herbal tea. His descent module landed in the grasslands not far from the launch site after travelling more than 600 megametres (thousands and thousands of miles, essentially). He returned to Beijing that Thursday, and said it the best day of his life.
Qian watched the launch from his hospital bed. Premier Wen Jiabao visited him, and Qian confidently told him that he decided to live to be 100.
Shenzhou 6 followed suit, sending the two backups from Shenzhou 5 into orbit for nearly a week. Pigeons were released in front of the astronauts’ homes, and they reportedly traded seats midflight, which was a big deal.
Shenzhou 7 pilots (from left) Jing Haipeng, Zhai Zhigang, and Liu Boming
The latest mission, Shenzhou 7, launched a month after the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. It carried three pilots, and two of them made the first Chinese space walk, in which the taikonauts crawled out of the ship and floated in space for nearly half an hour, waving flags for viewers back home.
The Chinese managed another first on that mission—launching a really miniature satellite from the spaceship, which orbited Shenzhou 7 as Shenzhou 7 orbited the earth. The small box took photos of the ship and floated, blinking its lights, out about 120 miles away doing its own thing. Some time later in the mission, the ship flew past the International Space Station, just 20 miles below it. Whether the Chinese were trying to intimidate or show off is still unclear, but it seemed to annoy the rest of the space community.
“It was a glorious mission,” astronaut (taikonaut, yuhangyuan) Zhai Zhigang said upon landing. More Coming tomorrow.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 3

Shugang and Other Disasters
Beijing Opera singer
Jiang Ying, Qian's wife

April is a very cold month in Beijing, and the Jingxi Hotel had no heating.  Guards stood outside, shivering, while inside 400 delegates ate astronaut food through tubes and decided that they would lean on American and Russian technology for inspiration. This was in 1971, five years after the Cultural Revolution, but on the tail of their successful satellite launch. The experts, called in from across the country, were in good humor and admired the mock-up of the newest manned-space craft, though it was only made out of wood and cardboard. They named their newest program Project 714 or Shuguang, meaning Dawn in Mandarin.
They began the pilot selection process. The Russians, some argued, took shortcuts by cutting the selection pool to fighter pilots. This would save time. But the Americans, said others, considered only the most qualified fighter pilots, and so we should do the same. And, of course, the candidates should be politically motivated, no taller than 5’7, and no older than 38.
They narrowed it down to nineteen astronauts (or taikonauts as they are called by some of the press, or yuhangyuan as they are called officially but rarely by any Westerner that doesn’t want to embarrass themselves). All of them had stellar records and interesting histories. Among the potential spacemen were the few Chinese pilots who had shot at American planes, mostly in the airspace around the Vietnam-Chinese boarder. One, Fang Guojun, spoke passionately of the time when the People’s Liberation Army used his school as a barracks, and the committee loved him. Preparation began, and several committee members left for Sichuan Province to find a new launch site, ideally somewhere in the mountains, isolated and quiet.
The decision makers, however, had little to work with. Program 714 had only 7 officials, a phone and a jeep. Qian refused to complain about the lack of funding.
They took the pilots for training, but didn’t tell them anything, and fed them only steamed bread for lack of money. Due to the secrecy of the program, the government left them alone and pretended that they weren’t there. Members allegedly had trouble arranging for test flights of even the most average aircraft on military airfields. They began to complain.
Finally, someone spoke out. After asking Mao for more funding, the Chairman always replied that the members and trainees had no grit, and he finally told an envoy sent to meet him that terrestrial matters come first. And, like that, the program ended, again, and the pilots were sent home. Qian sat, wondering. This was 1972.
But basic preparations continued, and in 1975 they launched a recoverable satellite that successfully reentered the atmosphere. Scouts were sent to nearby mountains to look for the returning satellite as it parachuted back down. They waited and waited. Eventually, a small group of miners in Guizhou province—a few hundred miles east—watched terrified as something fell from the sky and crashed into a tree while they ate lunch. They approached the wreckage slowly, and threw a few rocks. When they heard the rocks hit and knew it was metal, they were less worried. Though they never understood what exactly it was.
Qian was aging, watching his space program make significant but gradual achievements. The Americans and Russians made brilliant progress in just a few years, but the Chinese always made short spurts, lost something (usually money, support), and then argued, went to a Beijing hotel, or just waited. In 1976, Chairman Mao died. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping took office and slowly began reforming the economy, taking the first steps that led to its free-market capitalist system of present.
In 1981, the US began testing its space shuttle—the iconic spacecraft that looks like a killer whale and lands like a plane upon reentry. It is also, at the time of this writing, on its penultimate flight.
There was a great deal of internal arguing, but they were getting closer to a resolution and solid plan. Deng was not always helpful, siting how unlikely it was that any Chinese astronaut would enter space in his lifetime. But nonetheless China began to speak with the UN, signing space treaties and minimally participating in conversation.
In 1984, President Reagan offered to send a Chinese astronaut into space, but the Party said they were uninterested. Deng Xiaoping stepped down. Qian began to promote scientific investigation of traditional Chinese medicine, and no one heard anything for a long time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 2

The First Modern Chinese Rocket Scientist
               In 1911, the year that Feng returned to China, Qian Xuesen was born just south of Shanghai, in the coastal city of Hangzhou. Feng’s logical successor, Qian was born to a prosperous family. His father was a member of the Ministry of Education in Beijing, and the boy moved up and down the northern coast for much of his childhood. He studied mechanical engineering in Shanghai, received high honors, and went to America.
               He received a scholarship and went to MIT in Boston, earned his masters, and then enrolled at Caltech, where he helped find the now famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. 
Qian Xuesen
              Then, in the 30’s, students shot small handmade rockets for their graduate theses. Now a NASA field center, JPL has since contracted the first American satellite and all the Mars rovers, and has long managed the giant, football field-sized satellite dishes we see in the movies.
                   Early names attached to the program are the occultist Jack Parsons and Theodore von Kármán, whose name will come up in a Google search if you are ever curious about just how far up one would have to go to enter outer space (the actual distinction, or the Kármán Line, is 62 miles above sea level).
               Qian earned his doctorate in 1939, and began to make a name for himself as a real rocket scientist in California. Kármán called him a genius and took him as a protégé. WWII began, and both were put to work copying German technology.   
               The Germans had, in the early 40’s, begun launching test rockets from a small town on their northern coast, and people began noticing large, strange things fall into the Baltic Sea. The Russians watched them, and so did the British. And then, in 1942, the Germans made history, sending the first man-made object across the Kármán Line, into outer space. Their V-2 rocket, which the Allies had only heard of, was also launched toward London, but that is another, more unfortunate story.
Qian, Kármán
            The Allies began racing German recovery boats across the channel, trying to find test wreckage.  The Russians sent Polish rebels to spy and speak with nearby farmers, who knew more than anyone else at the time. One test launch flew across the channel and into Sweden, who traded it to the Brits for several warplanes. A German POW later explained the mishap to interrogators. He claimed that mission control became so awestruck watching the rocket that he could no longer direct it, but only stared in amazement as it disappeared behind the clouds. That’s why it landed so far off course.
               As is known, the Germans eventually lost, but they made plans before they did. As their situation worsened, the Nazis began contracting the scientists who had been put to work elsewhere, and compiled a list of their smartest engineers. The Osenburg List, as it was called, was classified and kept under wraps, but one copy disappeared. It was later found stuffed in a toilet at Bonn University. A Polish lab assistant read it, shoved it in his coat and ran home. He sent the list on, and it eventually came to US intelligence, which took the list and waited. After the war, they sent Qian and Kármán to Germany to find the listed scientists and collect whatever they could. How the lab assistant knew the crumpled paper was worth digging out of the toilet is anyone’s guess.

(From left) Saturn V rocket, Dr. Von Braun, JFK
           Qian and Kármán ransacked major labs. The Russians got the rest. That single event—the rummaging around Germany’s countryside for valuable people, blue prints and aeronautical technology—was so pivotal to the next several decades that many stories have been written about it, imagining what vastly different outcomes were possible. A popular comic book has England reaching the test sites first, acquiring the scientists and winning the space race 15 years later.
               Among the surrendered Germans was Wernher von Braun, an SS Officer. He later met President John F Kennedy as the President promised the American people that Astronauts—not Cosmonauts—would walk on the moon before 1970. A big bull of a man, von Braun designed a great deal of NASA’s technology for years afterward, culminating in the design of the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo’s into Lunar orbit and landed Niel and Buzz on the moon.

Qian Arrested, Sent Home
               But despite his loyalty and reputation in the US, Qian came under scrutiny after he returned from Europe. The Soviets were gaining influence, and anti-communist sentiment spread across the US. In 1949, in the same year that he applied for US citizenship, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. The Red Scare began, and Qian was followed and harassed. A year later his security clearance was revoked on grounds that he was a Communist spy, and he was put under house arrest until he was finally allowed to return to China in 1955, traded for American POWs. JPL and Caltech were dumbfounded, but so were many people in that time.
               Back on China’s northern coast, Qian was greeted by the Party and asked to head their space program, just in time for the beginnings of the space race.
               In 1957, Sputnik entered orbit. In ‘58, Qian and company built the Jiuquan Launch Center in the middle of nowhere, Inner Mongolia. Engineers on top of the launch tower can see for miles in any direction, looking at the same landscape that Marco Polo wandered across, and where Genghis-Khan once ruled.
               Their first missile was built that year as well—a reverse-engineered copy of a Russian missile—itself a highly inspired upgrade of the old German V-2 rocket. Qian was proud to see it fly away.
               He also designed the anti-ship Silkworm missile that decade, which was later used ad nauseam across the Middle East in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Mao and Khrushchev, friends for a while
               The Chinese Space Program received help from the Soviets, but not for long. Brothers in Communism, Chairman Mao and Nikolai Khrushchev none-the-less saw things quite differently. Khrushchev, the Russian Premier at the time, questioned the Chinese after the Dalai Lama fled to India, and once, at dinner, passed on a polite request on behalf of President Eisenhower, wondering at the release of several American POWs. The Chairman was bewildered. By 1959, Khrushchev called Soviet experts back home, and the space program was left handicapped. Construction of the Beijing subway system—designed with the help of Russian engineers—halted, and the tunnels sat empty for five years.
               In 1967 Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, becoming the first human to go to outer space. The Americans sent Alan Shepard up less than a month later.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
               It took another few years to recover, but when they did, the plans became ambitious. Qian proposed a two-man capsule, a satellite program, and then another manned capsule. In 1966, registered under phony names at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing, a small committee began planning. They discussed the design and cost of the manned space program, and the unique contributions that the Sino people could offer the space community. They left twenty days later, with a twenty-page report. Qian came in and out of the spotlight. The twenty-page report had a few readers, if any.
               A ten-year program was approved in 1966, with the immediate goal of sending a dog into orbit by July, with monkeys coming later. But the Cultural Revolution began that year, and neither animal made the trip. Despite Chairman Mao’s approval, the space program was crippled, like most everything at the time. The nation’s top aeronautical scientists, Qian included, came under ridicule by public vigilantes. The Director of the Institute of Geophysics was murdered, and Qian was severely demoted. Only several months later, amid the confusion, did the Communist Party offer a list of fifteen-or-so scientists that should be exempt from trouble.
            Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20th, 1969. Just before the lunar landing, Houston told the astronauts to be on the lookout for a lonely girl and her rabbit. Collins, the mission’s unsung member (but their best writer), confirmed that they’d “keep a close eye for the bunny girl.”
            Despite thousands of setbacks, Qian and company kept working, albeit without much official support. That year, they launched the first of their long family of Long March rockets, which carry payload up past the atmosphere before falling back down and quietly disappearing. The Long March rockets would launch nearly everything the Chinese would ever send into space.
Dong Fang Hong 1
In 1970, somehow, they held their hats and watched their first satellite lift off from the Jiuquan launch pad, and then ran back inside to press dials and stare at screens. Shaped like a disco ball, Dong Fang Hong I (The East is Red) remained operational for nearly four weeks, playing the then communist national anthem of the same name on repeat over radio. It circled the globe once every two hours and is still in orbit today, catalogued by the US as a known object in nearby space.
             Pictures of it resemble a prop from some old, forgotten sci-fi movie. Equipped with long antennas and several tiny, flashing bulbs, the satellite, just like Russia’s small Sputnik 1 and France’s weird looking Astérix, doesn’t look futuristic or state-of-the-art anymore; it looks fake. Public imagination seems to have moved on, leaving these realistic shapes and blueprints in the hands of green aliens visiting from Mars or maybe Saturn.
But Mao was impressed. Standing with Qian on the rostrum overlooking Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Mao personally approved the manned program unquestioningly (again), and told them to get to work.

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 1

Before Us
              Throughout Chinese legend, certain characters have so offended the gods that they were exiled from earth and sent to live on the moon. Like an ancient Chinese Siberia, the moon is now home to several unhappy people who, in one way or another, have attempted to achieve immortality without the gods’ consent.
               A woodcutter named Wu Gang is up there. Sent to the moon with only his axe, he will be allowed to return to earth once he cuts down a lunar tree. But try as he may, each tree he cuts down grows back before the gods can notice. And so he continues to search, cut down, and watch helplessly as each stump sprouts new branches.

Chang'e, circa Ancient Times
             Another legend tells of the moon goddess Chang’e, who floated to the moon from her bedroom window. Two versions exist. In the first, her husband goes on a painstaking search to give her immortality, and finds a pill strong enough for two people—perfect for man and wife. However, Chang’e finds the pill, hears him calling, and swallows both doses in a panic. Her husband watches, terrified and full of remorse, as his beautiful wife floats away from some sort of fantastic overdose.
               One more being lives in lunar rhapsody—the jade rabbit. A friend of Chang’e, the rabbit sits under a tree with mortar and pestle, making herbal medicine for the gods, and has long been combining jade and ore in hopes of curing Chang’e’s loneliness.  
               The stories have been retold over the centuries. Mao Zedong wrote about Chang’e in his poetry, and China’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the legend. But the characters have also found their way outside of folklore. The satellite Chang’e 1 appeared in the form of a bronze-colored box with solar wings. It lifted off from China’s southwestern Sichuan province in 2007 and orbited the moon for nearly a year and a half before successfully (yes, successfully) crashing into its surface.
               Chang’e 2 launched last October, and will orbit the hunk of cheese for the next several weeks, sending transmissions and photos of the lonesome craters. Chang’e 2 was the most recent accomplishment in Chinese space flight, which has endured a long history of strange events not unlike the legends that inspired the names of its rockets, satellites and missions.
               And it’s been a long time coming.

Feng Ru in San Francisco
               The story necessarily began in 1908, in a small workshop that caught fire one night in Oakland, CA. The blaze started when Feng Ru, a Chinese immigrant, lost control of his homemade airplane and crashed through the roof of his office.
               Known locally as Fong Joe Guey, Feng arrived in San Francisco in his early teens. Fascinated by the shipyards and factories across the Bay Area, he took up odd jobs to learn machinery and mechanics. He earned the confidence of the local Chinese businessmen, who were impressed with his early inventions—a new kind of telephone, alternative generators, and a strange water pump. But it was the Wright Brothers, who flew for the first time only a few years earlier, that truly inspired Feng. He translated flight notes and anything else he could find, studying what he could, and imagined what his plane would like.
               He opened the Guangdong Airline Factory-- a small workshop with a creaking roof. Two years later and his first plane was, like many firsts, nowhere near his best. His neighbors must have been terrified, seeing something like a huge bat fly over their houses at night. It was around then, in 1908, that he crashed that first plane into company HQ and burned down his sole workspace. But it proved he could do it.
Feng Ru, date unknown
               He then found assistants, moved operations to the open Piedmont Hills outside of town, and made his breakthrough. With the financial backing of the restaurant owners who were so impressed with him years earlier, Feng had different parts of a new 6-horse power engine built in different factories to ensure secrecy. His biplane, which is the name for those old fashioned planes flown at the time (the ones with two sets of wings), had a wingspan of 25 feet. He named it the Feng Ru 1. His test flights, varying in length according to how long it took for something to snap off, crack or come loose, attracted onlookers, and Feng is credited as the first Oakland resident to build an airplane.
               He completed a twenty-minute test flight in 1909, circling the low hills of Piedmont. The plane crashed, nose-diving from 12 feet, but he only got a few bruises. Newspapers were writing about the growing number of Chinese immigrants showing up in San Francisco, and some began adding jokes at the end their articles, wondering if any could arrive by plane. Swelling with pride, Feng kept his secrets to himself. Sun Yat-Sen, the revolutionary that helped topple the final Chinese Dynasty, was also in the US at the time, somewhere in Colorado. He encouraged Feng, helping to convince him that his homeland needed his expertise. Feng was honored, enjoyed a lavish farewell dinner with members of the Chinatown community, and went back home in 1911. He took Guangdong Airlines with him.
               He was made Captain in the revolutionary army, though little is known about what exactly he did in the war. He died a year after he returned, when his plane crashed into a bamboo grove from 120 feet in the middle of an airshow. Reportedly, he gave a very heroic speech while lying in the wreckage of splintered wood, informing his assistants of how they weren’t dissuaded by his impending death. His bust survives him, and on his tombstone Sun Yat-Sen inscribed “Pioneer of Chinese Aviation.” He was given a full military funeral.

Feng Ru and Friends in 1907

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


WLECOME! My battery is about to die, but thanks for coming!