Hanging out with the disgruntled guys who babysit our aging nuclear missiles—and hate every second of it.

Death Wears Bunny Slippers

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Along a lonely state highway on central Montana’s high plains, I approach what looks like a ranch entrance, complete with cattle guard. “The first ace in the hole,” reads a hand-etched cedar plank hanging from tall wooden posts. “In continuous operation for over 50 years.” I drive up the dirt road to a building surrounded by video cameras and a 10-foot-tall, barbed-wire-topped fence stenciled with a poker spade. “It is unlawful to enter this area,” notes a sign on the fence, whose small print cites the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, a law that once required communist organizations to register with the federal government. “Use of deadly force authorized.”

I’m snapping photos when a young airman appears. “You’re not taking pictures, are you?” he asks nervously.

“Yeah, I am,” I say. “The signs don’t say that I can’t.”

“Well, we might have to confiscate your phone.”

Maybe he should. We’re steps away from the 10th Missile Squadron Alpha Missile Alert Facility, an underground bunker capable of launching several dozen nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with a combined destructive force 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

Another airman comes out of the ranch house and asks for my driver’s license. He’s followed by an older guy clad in sneakers, maroon gym shorts, and an air of authority. “I’m not here to cause trouble,” I say, picturing myself in a brig somewhere.

“Just you being here taking photos is causing trouble,” he snaps.

An alarm starts blaring from inside the building. One airman turns to the other. “Hey, there’s something going off in there.”
Six hours earlier, I was driving through Great Falls with a former captain in the Air Force’s 341st Missile Wing. Aaron, as I’ll call him, had recently completed a four-year stint at the Alpha facility. Had President Obama ordered an attack with ICBMs, Aaron could have received a coded message, authenticated it, and been expected to turn a launch key.

Also read: “That Time We Almost Nuked North Carolina“—a timeline of near-misses, mishaps, and scandals from our atomic arsenal.

We kept passing unmarked blue pickup trucks with large tool chests—missile maintenance guys. The Air Force doesn’t like to draw attention to the 150 silos dotting the surrounding countryside, and neither does Great Falls. With about 4,000 residents and civilian workers and a $219 million annual payroll, Malmstrom Air Force Base drives the local economy, but you won’t see any missile-themed bars or restaurants. “We get some people that have no idea that there’s even an Air Force base here,” one active-duty missileer told me.

It’s not just Great Falls practicing selective amnesia. The days of duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, and No Nukes protests are fading memories—nowhere more so than in the defense establishment. At a July 2013 forum in Washington, DC, Lt. General James Kowalski, who commands all of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, said a Russian nuclear attack on the United States was such “a remote possibility” that it was “hardly worth discussing.”

But then Kowalski sounded a disconcerting note that has a growing number of nuclear experts worried. The real nuclear threat for America today, he said, “is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Lt. General James Kowalski

Lt. General James Kowalski Air Force

“You can’t screw up once—and that’s the unique danger of these machines,” points out investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, whose recent book, Command and Control, details the Air Force’s stunning secret history of nuclear near-misses, from the accidental release of a hydrogen bomb that would have devastated North Carolina to a Carter-era computer glitch that falsely indicated a shower of incoming Soviet nukes. “In this business, you need a perfect safety record.”

Once the military’s crown jewels, ICBM bases have become “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner.”

And a perfect record, in a homeland arsenal made up of hundreds of missiles and countless electronic and mechanical systems that have to operate flawlessly—to say nothing of the men and women at the controls—is a very hard thing to achieve. Especially when the rest of the nation seems to have forgotten about the whole thing. “The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner,” he says. And morale is abysmal.

Blair’s organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it’s imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world’s most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.

In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers’ phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing, resigned.

The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011. Ex-missileers told me it went back decades: “Everybody has cheated on those tests.”

The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011, but three former missileers told me it was the norm at Malmstrom when they arrived there back in 2007, and that the practice was well established. (Blair told me that cheating was even common when he served at Malmstrom in the mid-1970s.) Missileers would check each other’s tests before turning them in and share codes indicating the correct proportion of multiple-choice answers on a given exam. If the nuclear program’s top brass, who all began their careers as missileers, weren’t aware of it, the men suggested, then they were willfully looking the other way. “You know in Casablanca, when that inspector was ‘absolutely shocked’ that there was gambling at Rick’s? It’s that,” one recently retired missileer told me. “Everybody has cheated on those tests.”

Cheating is just one symptom of what Lt. Colonel Jay Folds, then the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base, called “rot” in the atomic force. Last November, Associated Press reporter Robert Burns obtained a RAND study commissioned by the Air Force. It concluded that the typical launch officer was exhausted, cynical, and distracted on the job. ICBM airmen also had high rates of sexual assault, suicide, and spousal and child abuse, and more than double the rates of courts-martial than Air Force personnel as a whole.

The morale problems were well known to Michael Carey, the two-star general who led the program at the time the cheating was revealed. Indeed, he pointed them out to other Americans during an official military cooperation trip to Moscow, before spending the rest of his three-day visit on a drunken bender, repeatedly insulting his Russian military hosts and partying into the wee hours with “suspect” foreign women, according to the Air Force’s inspector general. He later confessed to chatting for most of a night with the hotel’s cigar sales lady, who was asking questions “about physics and optics”—and thinking to himself: “Dude, this doesn’t normally happen.” Carey was stripped of his command in October 2013.

The embarrassments just keep coming. Last week, the Air Force fired two more nuclear commanders, including Col. Carl Jones, the No. 2 officer in the 90th Missile Wing at Wyoming’s Warren Air Force Base, and disciplined a third, for a variety of leadership failures, including the maltreatment of subordinates. In one instance, two missileers were sent to the hospital after exposure to noxious fumes at a control center—they had remained on duty for fear of retaliation by their commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy “Keith” Brown. This week, the Pentagon is expected to release a comprehensive review of the nuclear program that details “serious problems that must be addressed urgently.”

“Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous.”

Stung by the recent bad press, the Air Force has announced pay raises, changes to the proficiency tests, and nearly $400 million in additional spending to increase staffing and update equipment. In the long term, Congress and the administration are debating a trillion-dollar suite of upgrades to the nuclear program, which could include replacing the existing ICBMs and warheads with higher-tech versions.

But outside experts say none of the changes will address the core of the problem: obsolescence. “There is a morale issue,” says Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, “that comes down to the fundamental question: How is the ICBM force essential? It’s hard to find that [answer] if you sit in the hole out there. Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous.”

launch switches

A missile commander’s launch switches. National Park Service

Indeed, on my first night in town, over beer and bison burgers, Aaron had introduced me to “Brent,” another recently former missileer who looks more like a surfer now that his military crew cut is all grown out. Brent lost faith in his leaders early on, he told me, when he saw the way they tolerated, if not encouraged, a culture of cheating. He’d resisted the impulse, he said, and his imperfect test scores disqualified him for promotions. But the worst part of the gig, the guys agreed, might be the stultifying tedium of being stuck in a tiny room all day and night waiting for an order you knew would never come. “Any TV marathon you can stumble upon is good,” Brent said. “Even if it’s something you hate. It’s just that ability to zone out and lose time.”


CONTINUED:  http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/air-force-missile-wing-minuteman-iii-nuclear-weapons-burnout

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time in 4,000 Years of Cosmigraphics


A visual catalog of our quintessential quest to understand the cosmos and our place in it.

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope, antagonizing the church and unleashing a “hummingbird effect” of innovation, humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (public library) — a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness.” From glorious paintings of the creation myth predating William Blake’s work by centuries to the pioneering galaxy drawing that inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night to NASA’s maps of the Apollo 11 landing site, the images remind us that the cosmos — like Whitman, like ourselves — is vast and contains multitudes. This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

Illustration from Henry Russell’s 1892 treatise ‘Observations of the Transit of Venus.’Courtesy of The Royal Society

The book’s title is an allusion to Italo Calvino’s beloved Cosmicomics, a passage from which Benson deploys as the epigraph:

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

Long before the notion of vacuum existed in cosmology, English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, which depicts multiple chaotic fires subsiding until a central starlike structure becomes visible amid concentric rings of smoke and debris. Even though Fludd believed in a geocentric cosmology, this image comes strikingly close to current theories of solar system formation.Courtesy of U. of Oklahoma History of Science collections

Paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, from 1693–1698. Eimmart’s depictions are based on a 1659 engraving by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, the first to confirm that Saturn’s mysterious appendages, which had confounded astronomers since Galileo, were in fact ‘a thin flat ring, nowhere touching.’ What makes Eimmart’s painting unique is that it combines the observations of more than ten astronomers into a depiction of superior accuracy.Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Universita di Bologna

In 1845, Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, equipped his castle with a giant six-ton telescope, soon nicknamed the ‘Leviathan,’ which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1918. Despite the cloudy Irish skies, Lord Rosse managed to glimpse and draw the spellbinding spiral structures of what were thought to be nebulae within the Milky Way. This print, based on Lord Rosse’s drawing of one such nebula — M51, known today as the Whirlpool Galaxy — became a sensation throughout Europe and inspired Van Gogh’s iconic ‘The Starry Night.’Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

The project, which does for space what Cartographies of Time did for the invisible dimension, also celebrates the natural marriage of art and science. These early astronomers were often spectacular draughtsmen as well — take, for instance, Johannes Hevelius and his groundbreaking catalog of stars. As Benson points out, art and science were “essentially fused” until about the 17th century and many of the creators of the images in the book were also well-versed in optics, anatomy, and the natural sciences.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, envisions the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator.Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

De Holanda was fascinated by the geometry of the cosmos, particularly the triangular form and its interplay with the circle.Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

This cryptic and unsettling ‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ (1580–1590), made by an unknown artist, appropriates French mathematician and cartographer Oronce Finé’s cordiform, or heart-shaped, projection of the Earth; the world in this iconic image is dressed in a jester’s belled cap, beneath which a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes reads: ‘The number of fools is infinite.’Public domain via Wikimedia

The book is, above all, a kind of conceptual fossil record of how our understanding of the universe evolved, visualizing through breathtaking art the “fits and starts of ignorance” by which science progresses — many of the astronomers behind these enchanting images weren’t “scientists” in the modern sense but instead dabbled in alchemy, astrology, and various rites driven by religion and superstition. (For instance, Isaac Newton, often celebrated as the greatest scientist of all time, spent a considerable amount of his youth self-flagellating over his sins, and trying to discover “The Philosopher’s Stone,” a mythic substance believed to transmute ordinary metals into gold. And one of the gorgeous images in Benson’s catalog comes from a 1907 children’s astronomy book I happen to own, titled The Book of Stars for Young People, the final pages of which have always struck me with their counterblast: “Far out in space lies this island of a system, and beyond the gulfs of space are other suns, with other systems: some may be akin to ours and some quite different… The whole implies design, creation, and the working of a mighty intelligence; and yet there are small, weak creatures here on this little globe who refuse to believe in God.”)

A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested.Courtesy of the Huntington Library

The Nebra Sky Disc (2000–1600 B.C.), excavated illegally in Germany in 1999, is considered to be both humanity’s first-known portable astronomical instrument and the oldest-known visual depiction of celestial objects.Public domain via Wikimedia

One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world’s first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history’s first true moon map.Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

Beginning in 1870, French-born artist and astronomer Étienne Trouvelot spent a decade producing a series of spectacular illustrations of celestial bodies and cosmic phenomena. In 1872, he joined the Harvard College Observatory and began using its powerful telescopes in perfecting his drawings. His pastel illustrations, including this chromolithograph of Mare Humorum, a vast impact basin on the southwest side of the Earth-facing hemisphere of the moon, were among the first serious attempts to enlist art in popularizing the results of observations using technology developed for scientific research.Courtesy of the U. of Michigan Library

Étienne Trouvelot’s 1873 engravings of solar phenomena, produced during his first year at the Harvard College Observatory for the institution’s journal. The legend at the bottom reveals that the distance between the two prominences in the lower part of the engraving is one hundred thousand miles, more than 12 times the diameter of Earth. Despite the journal’s modest circulation, such engravings were soon co-opted by more mainstream publications and became trailblazing tools of science communication that greatly influenced public understanding of the universe’s scale.Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

What makes Benson’s project especially enchanting is the strange duality it straddles: On the one hand, the longing to make tangible and visible the complex forces that rule our existence is a deeply human one; on the other, the notion of simplifying such expansive complexities into static images seems paradoxical to a dangerous degree — something best captured by pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell when she marveled: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Unable to seize the infinite, are we fooling ourselves by trying to reduce it into a seizable visual representation? At what point do we, like Calvino’s protagonist, begin to mistake the presence or absence of “signs” for the presence or absence of space itself? It calls to mind Susan Sontag’s concern about how photography’s “aesthetic consumerism” endangers the real experience of life, which the great physicist Werner Heisenberg channeled decades earlier in a remark that exposes the dark side of visualizing the universe:

Contemporary thought is endangered by the picture of nature drawn by science. This danger lies in the fact that the picture is now regarded as an exhaustive account of nature itself so that science forgets that in its study of nature it is studying its own picture.

Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ depicting Wright’s trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies.Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

And yet awe, the only appropriate response to the cosmos, is a visceral feeling by nature and thus has no choice but to engage our “aesthetic consumerism” — which is why the yearning at the heart of Benson’s project is a profoundly human one. He turns to the words of the pioneering English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Wright, whose 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe Benson considers “one of the best-case studies of scientific reasoning through image.” Wright marvels:

What inconceivable vastness and magnificence of power does such a frame unfold! Suns crowding upon Suns, to our weak sense, indefinitely distant from each other; and myriads of myriads of mansions, like our own, peopling infinity, all subject to the same Creator’s will; a universe of worlds, all decked with mountains, lakes, and seas, herbs, animals, and rivers, rocks, caves, and trees… Now, thanks to the sciences, the scene begins to open to us on all sides, and truths scarce to have been dreamt of before persons of observation had proved them possible, invade our senses with a subject too deep for the human understanding, and where our very reason is lost in infinite wonders.

Illuminated solar eclipse prediction tables by German miniaturist Joachinus de Gigantibus, from the 1478 scientific treatise ‘Astronomia’ by Tuscan-Neopolitan humanist Christianus Prolianus.Courtesy of Rylands Medieval Collection, U. of Manchester

NASA’s 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey.Courtesy of USGS/NASA

Illustration from G. E. Mitton’s ‘The Book of Stars for Young People,’ 1907Courtesy of AAVSO

Artist-astronomer Étienne Trouvelot’s drawing of the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878, in Wyoming.Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cosmigraphics is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with a tour of parallel facets of humanity’s visual imagination, Umberto Eco’s atlas of legendary lands and Manuel Lima’s visual history of tree-like diagrams, then revisit the little-known story of how Galileo influenced Shakespeare and this lovely children’s book about space exploration.



Deadly SpaceShipTwo crash follows explosion of unmanned Antares rocket


By Bryan Dyne
1 November 2014

The suborbital spacecraft VSS Enterprise, a SpaceShipTwo-class rocket, crashed in the Mojave Desert in the US during a test flight Friday, resulting in the death of one crew member and the injury of another.

Earlier this week, an unmanned Antares rocket from the Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded only a few seconds into its flight. Early reports suggest that the first stage of the launch vehicle failed, prompting the range safety officer to initiate an emergency depressurization of the rocket’s fuel tanks, which caused the explosion.

The two space disasters in the span of one week highlight the growing prominence of private companies in space missions.

The SpaceShipTwo is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and the test flight was being conducted by Virgin Galactic’s partner, Scaled Composites. This was the spacecraft’s first manned flight since January.

There has been no official comment by Virgin Galactic or Scaled Composites on the cause of the crash. Virgin Galactic has so far only said that the craft “suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.” Eyewitness reports indicate that the vessel exploded just after its engine fired when it was dropped from its mother ship, White Knight Two.

There is speculation that the cause of the explosion was the engine, which was using a new plastic-based fuel that had up to this point only been tested on the ground.

The pilot killed in the SpaceShipTwo crash is the fourth fatality from the SpaceShipTwo program. Three others were killed in a 2007 explosion of an unattached rocket engine using the old rubber-based fuel. An investigation found that the three were standing too close to the rocket motor, in violation of safety regulations.

SpaceShipTwo vehicles, first revealed to the public in 2009, were designed to be the first space tourism vessels. After being carried to a launch altitude of 15 kilometers, it uses a booster to ascend to 110 kilometers. This is 10 kilometers above the Kármán line, which is the formal definition of space. It stays at that altitude for only a few minutes, during which time the passengers would experience free fall and view the surface of Earth against the black of space. There are currently more than 700 individuals who have deposited the requisite $200,000-250,000 to reserve a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight.

The Antares rocket, in contrast, was being operated by a company contracted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a US government agency that relies heavily on private corporations. The rocket that exploded was on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.

The first-stage rockets used by Antares are refurbished Soviet NK-33 engines. Each one is a 40-year-old piece of equipment that was sold for $1.1 million each to Aerojet, a company that works alongside Orbital Sciences to launch the rockets.

Being cheap is the only reason the NK-33 rockets are used. While innovative at the time, they are now far behind modern technology. There is also only a limited supply of the rockets in existence, meaning that unless Orbital can overcome the legal hurdles of using the old Soviet designs to make new rockets, the Antares family has a limited number of launches.

Furthermore, not only do Antares rockets require old Soviet hardware, Orbital currently uses Russian and Ukrainian labor to maintain and refurbish the rockets. Since the company does not have the expertise needed and would rather not use the more expensive workers from NASA, large sections of the first-stage work of the Antares are contracted out to the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Bureau.

Orbital Sciences is not the only private company to use Russian-built rockets to power their machines. The Atlas V of the United Launch Alliance uses a single RD-180 engine as its first-stage engine. Significantly, one of the main uses of the Atlas family of rockets is to put US military satellites into orbit. In response to rising tensions between the US and Russia over the US-backed coup in Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin declared in May that, “Russia will ban the United States from using Russian-made rocket engines for military launches.”

While the causes of the two disasters this week are still under investigation, both involve private companies operating on the basis of the profit motive, with a consequent interest in cutting costs.

While NASA has always relied heavily on contractors, and in particular military contractors, the increasing privatization of spaceflight accelerated in the 1990s and particularly in the 2000s. It has been continued under the Obama administration, which cancelled the Constellation program and shut down the shuttle program. Any manned missions launched by NASA will be asteroid missions, which are slated to begin in 2025 at the earliest. Manned flights to Mars have been sequestered indefinitely.

Not only has privatization led to cost cutting, but the basic purpose of space flight has shifted from scientific endeavors to space tourism and similar operations. To date, no fundamentally new technologies have been developed by Virgin Galactic. The “hybrid” motor’s primary advantage is cheapness, and it has yet to be reliably and regularly operated.

Moreover, the vehicle only ever reaches 13 percent of the velocity required to get to orbit, and thus is not developing a technology that is applicable to actually staying in space. Given that such altitudes were reached in an earlier period by figures such as Auguste Piccard and Joseph Kittinger, who did tests for cosmic rays and high-altitude parachutes respectively, there is no new science being done. Given the high price tag for rides, moreover, the “space” plane is only accessible to the very wealthy.

Other companies such as Boeing and SpaceX are also looking into private manned spaceflight, but their programs are less developed than Virgin Galactic.



Will Hypersonic Capabilities Render Missile Defense Obsolete?

Will Hypersonic Capabilities Render Missile Defense Obsolete?

Throughout the nuclear era, and especially since the 1980s, the United States has been singularly obsessed with developing a strategic missile defense system. In some ways, this obsession seems to be growing.

A 2011 Arms Control Association report noted that to date the United States had spent over a $100 billion on developing strategic missile defense systems. A Council on Foreign Relations’ Backgrounder from last year contends that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency spent roughly $90 billion between 2002 and 2013, and plans to spend about $8 billion annually (2 percent of the Pentagon’s baseline budget) through 2017.

Strategic missile defense might therefore very well constitute the worst investment-return ratio of any major military system in U.S. history given that decades of work and billions of dollars have produced little in the way of results. To be sure, the U.S. has demonstrated some notable progress in the area in recent years. Still, at best, the missile defense systems the U.S. is developing might provide some unreliable protection against the currently non-existent North Korean and Iranian missile threats to the U.S. homeland.

Yet current missile defense efforts are probably at greater risk of becoming obsolete than at any time before. As Harry Kazianis noted on these pages last year, missile defense’s real enemy to date has been arithmetic. That is, missiles inherently favor the offense because they are exceptionally cheap to deploy and exceptionally expensive to defend against. Another factor that has long bedeviled strategic ballistic missile defense is the necessity of perfection given the sheer destructive power of just a few nuclear warheads.

But this is no longer the only threat to the missile defense systems the U.S. has invested so much in already, and continues to invest in the future. Notably, the emergence of hypersonic missiles could very well render these missile defense systems obsolete.

Hypersonic missiles pose two distinct challenges to current missile defense systems. First, they travel at speeds far greater than what the missile defense systems are built to counter. To be considered hypersonic, a missile must travel at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or 3,840–7,680 miles per hour. By contrast, modern cruise missiles travel at speeds of between 500 and 600 mph.

Secondly, hypersonic missiles fired from intercontinental ballistic missiles travel at lower altitudes and have greater maneuverability than the ballistic missiles America’s BMD systems are being built to counter. As Richard Fisher explained to The Washington Free Beacon after the recent Chinese hypersonic missile test: “The beauty of the HGV [hypersonic glide vehicle] is that it can perform hypersonic precision strikes while maintaining a relatively low altitude and flat trajectory, making it far less vulnerable to missile defenses.”

None of this has done anything to diminish the United States’ enthusiasm for pushing ahead with missile defense programs. In fact, support for missile defense seems to be growing among U.S. leaders. Whereas missile defense had been a fiercely partisan issue in the United States for decades—with Republicans strongly in favor and Democrats against—both parties now seem to generally support it, albeit with different degrees of enthusiasm. Indeed, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act ordered the Pentagon to review four sites on the eastern United States to build missile defense systems to protect the country from the ICBMs that Iran doesn’t have. Moreover, Reuters reported yesterday that the Pentagon now plans to ask Congress for an additional $4.5 billion in missile defense spending over the next five years.

Supporters of these efforts might counter that current missile defense systems aren’t intended to counter the ballistic missile threats posed by Russia and China—two of the four countries currently pursuing hypersonic capabilities (the others being the U.S. and India). Rather, the U.S. is simply trying to protect itself and its allies from less capable regional states like North Korea and Iran. Neither of these countries are known to be pursuing hypersonic capabilities.

This is perfectly true for the time being but it’s far from certain how long this situation will last. If the proliferation of missiles in general is any guide, hypersonic missiles are likely to proliferate across the globe before too long. It’s hardly unthinkable that North Korea and Iran will be among the countries that acquire them whether through indigenous efforts or by purchasing them from foreign sources. Both countries already have advanced missile development programs, as well as a history of foreign support for these “indigenous” efforts. China, in particular, has been quite generous to both when it comes to missile technology.

Therefore, at a time of fiscal austerity the U.S. is essentially investing billions of dollars in technology that will most likely be obsolete before its fully deployed.


Only Apollo camera to make return trip to the Moon to be auctioned



February 3, 2014



The Hasselblad Data Camera from Apollo 15 is the only one to make the return trip to Earth...

The Hasselblad Data Camera from Apollo 15 is the only one to make the return trip to Earth (Image: Westlicht)


Sometimes history is preserved by accident rather than design. Thanks to a malfunction during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 that prevented it from being abandoned with its fellows, the only camera used on the surface of the Moon and brought back to Earth will be auctioned by Westlicht Photographica Auction in Vienna. The motor-driven camera is a Hasselblad 500 “EL DATA CAMERA HEDC,” also known as a Hasselblad Data Camera (HDC), that was specially designed for use on the Moon. It’s currently in the hands of a private collector and goes on the block in March.


We like to think of space gear as being far more complicated than its terrestrial counterparts, but that isn’t always the case. Based on the the commercial electric Hasselblad camera, 500EL, the Apollo 15 HDC was heavily modified, though this was more a matter of radically simplifying it so it could be operated by a man in a space suit complete with helmet and thick, pressurized gloves.


The most visible step taken to make the HDC suitable for the Moon was painting it silver to reflect sunlight and help keep it cool. Since the lubricants normally used on Earth would either boil away in the vacuum on the Moon or stop being lubricants, they had to be replaced. In addition, Carl Zeiss designed a new bespoke lens, and a new, thinner film was developed by Kodak with a special coating of transparent silver to prevent the buildup of static electricity inside the camera as the film wound.


Starting bid for the Hasselblad is €80,000 (US$108,000)  (Image: NASA/Westlicht)


Because the astronauts couldn’t use the viewfinder, the mirror and secondary shutter were taken out, the focusing screen for the reflex viewfinder was replaced with an opaque plate, and a reseau plate engraved with a precision grid of small crosses was added to aid photogrammetric analysis. In addition, the controls were greatly simplified to accommodate the clumsy gloves. It all worked, but it did mean that taking photos had a huge element of guesswork as far as aiming was concerned.


This particular camera, officially numbered no.1038, was carried by Lunar Module Pilot James B. Irwin during the Apollo 15 mission, which flew from July 26 to August 7, 1971. It spent three days on the Moon, where Westlicht says it took 299 pictures in the vicinity of Hadley Rille in the lunar highlands of Palus Putredinus in Mare Imbrium.


A Hasselblad Data Camera with telescopic lens (Image: NASA)

A Hasselblad Data Camera with telescopic lens (Image: NASA)


The mission was notable for its emphasis on science, the introduction of the Lunar Rover, and being the first mission to land away from the vast lunar plains, but it’s also distinctive because of camera number 1038. While 13 identical cameras landed on the Moon, only number 1038 came back. The normal procedure was to leave the cameras behind along with other equipment in order to save liftoff weight, which could be used for taking more rock samples back to Earth. Irwin’s camera was the exception because the film magazine jammed, so the camera had to return to remove it.


Westlicht says that number 1038 eventually ended up in the hands of private collector Alain Lazzarini, author of the book Hasselblad and the Moon. It comes with extensive documentation and is identified by the number 38 on the reseau plate, which can be seen on photographs taken with the camera, the NASA number P/N SEB 33100040- S/N 103 engraved on the body, and the number P/N SEB 33101018-301 S/N 1003 HASSELBLAD REFLEX CAMERA FILM MAGAZINE on the magazine.


The auction will be held on March 22, when the starting bid for the Moon camera will be €80,000 (US$108,000) with estimates of the final price set at €150,000 to €200,000 (US$203,000 to US$270,000).


Source: Westlicht via Moon Daily


The Human Body May Not Be Cut Out For Space



The human body did not evolve to live in space, and the longest any human has been off Earth is 437 days. Some problems, like the brittling of bone, may have been overcome already. Others have been identified — for example, astronauts have trouble eating and sleeping enough — and NASA is working to understand and solve them. But Kenneth Chang reports in the NY Times that there are some health problems that still elude doctors more than 50 years after the first spaceflight. The biggest hurdle remains radiation. Without the protective cocoon of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, astronauts receive substantially higher doses of radiation, heightening the chances that they will die of cancer. Another problem identified just five years ago is that the eyeballs of at least some astronauts became somewhat squashed. ‘It is now a recognized occupational hazard of spaceflight,’ says Dr. Barratt. ‘We uncovered something that has been right under our noses forever.’ NASA officials often talk about the ‘unknown unknowns,’ the unforeseen problems that catch them by surprise. The eye issue caught them by surprise, and they are happy it did not happen in the middle of a mission to Mars. Another problem is the lack of gravity jumbles the body’s neurovestibular system (PDF) that tells people which way is up. When returning to the pull of gravity, astronauts can become dizzy, something that Mark Kelly took note of as he piloted the space shuttle to a landing. ‘If you tilt your head a little left or right, it feels like you’re going end over end.’ Beyond the body, there is also the mind. The first six months of Scott Kelly’s one-year mission are expected to be no different from his first trip to the space station. Dr. Gary E. Beven, a NASA psychiatrist, says he is interested in whether anything changes in the next six months. ‘We’re going to be looking for any significant changes in mood, in sleep, in irritability, in cognition.’ In a Russian experiment in 2010 and 2011, six men agreed to be sealed up in a mock spaceship simulating a 17-month Mars mission. Four of the six developed disorders, and the crew became less active as the experiment progressed. ‘I think that’s just an example of what could potentially happen during a Mars mission, but with much greater consequence,’ says Dr. Beven. ‘Those subtle changes in group cohesion could cause major problems.


Space Dogs

Space Dogs

Meet the canine heroes of the Soviet space programme


Dogs have been man’s best friend for tens of thousands of years. Their superior tracking abilities, combined with man’s superior killing abilities, made them invaluable to early hunter-gatherers.

This relationship persists to today, but the apex of the bond of friendship between the two species may have come in 1957, when a three-year-old mongrel named Kudryavka (“Little Curly”) was picked up on the streets of Moscow. She weighed about six kilograms, was part husky and part terrier, and had survived through several harsh Russian winters.

That made her the perfect candidate for an experimental programme being run by the Soviet government. Vladimir Yazdovsky was a medical scientist in the space program, who’d launched a number of dogs to altitudes of more than 450km in pressurised rockets.

While the US test rocket programme used monkeys, about two thirds of whom died, dogs were chosen by the Soviets for their ability to withstand long periods of inactivity, and were trained extensively before they flew. Only stray female dogs were used because it was thought they’d be better able to cope with the extreme stress of spaceflight, and the bubble-helmeted spacesuits designed for the programme were equipped with a device to collect feces and urine that only worked with females.

Training included standing still for long periods, wearing the spacesuits, being confined in increasingly small boxes for 15-20 days at a time, riding in centrifuges to simulate the high acceleration of launch, and being placed in machines that simulated the vibrations and loud noises of a rocket.

Some of the spacesuit designs used by the canine cosmonats // National Space Centre

The first pair of dogs to travel to space were Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”), who made it to 110km on 22 July 1951 and were recovered, unharmed by their ordeal, the next day. Dezik returned to space in September 1951 with a dog named Lisa, but neither survived the journey. After Dezik’s death, Tsygan was adopted by Anatoli Blagronravov, a physician who later worked closely with the United States at the height of the Cold War to promote international cooperation on spaceflight.

They were followed by Smelaya (“Brave”), who defied her name by running away the day before her launch was scheduled. She was found the next morning, however, and made a successful flight with Malyshka (“Babe”). Another runaway was Bolik, who successfully escaped a few days before her flight in September 1951. Her replacement was ignomoniously named ZIB — the Russian acronym for “Substitute for Missing Bolik”, and was a street dog found running around the barracks where the tests were being conducted. Despite being untrained for the mission, he made a successful flight and returned to Earth unharmed.

“Despite being untrained for the mission, he made a successful flight and returned to Earth unharmed.”

In June 1954, Another dog named Lisa flew to an altitude of 100km with a companion named Ryzhik (“Ginger”), returning successfully. But they didn’t have to deal with the trauma of a mid-air ejection at an altitude of 85km, as Albina and Tsyganka (“Gypsy Girl”) did. The pair landed safely, and it was noted in particular by the scientists how well Albina had coped with the journey.

In 1957, Soviet scientists were ready to attempt something rather more audacious — an orbital flight. Sputnik was launched on 4 October 1957, in a storm of publicity, sparking something of a crisis in the United States. This triggered the space race, and eventually led not only to the creation of NASA and eventually the Apollo programme and Moon landings, but also a vast increase in the funding of science.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in full thaw, decided to increase that pressure on the US and so Sputnik was followed up a mere month later by Sputnik 2 — a mission to put a living creature into orbit. The Soviets didn’t have the time to build the technology to bring the craft back, so it was known from the start that whichever animal was chosen would perish in space.

A longlist of ten canine cosmonauts was drawn up, which was then reduced to a shortlist of three. They were Albina — who’d already ejected from 85km, a dog named Mushka (“Little Fly”), and the aforementioned Kudryavka, who’d been collected on the streets of Moscow and impressed her trainers with her calm and quiet demeanour in the face of simulated stresses.

That even temperament won her the honour of being the first animal in orbit, and she was renamed Laika (“Barker”). In the days before launch she was kept in the module she would fly in — it was padded, had enough room for her to stand or lie down as she wanted to, and gave her access to a specially-designed nutritious jelly that was high in fibre for her to eat.

Dogs were housed in padded boxes like this for their voyage, allowing them space to stand or sit, and giving them access to food. // Benutzer:HPH CC BY-SA 3.0

Before launch, she was covered in an alcohol solution and painted with iodine in the places where sensors were connected to her skin, which monitored her heartbeat, blood pressure and other biological variables.

On 3 November 1957, Laika blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and became the first creature to orbit the Earth. The launch went smoothly, and her capsule entered an elliptical orbit, circling the planet at 29,000 km/h and completing a full rotation every hour and forty-two minutes.

While Laika certainly made it into space alive, it’s not entirely clear how long she lived after that. It was originally announced that she was euthanised with poisoned food several days into the mission, then it was said she died when her oxygen supply ran out, on the sixth day of her journey.

Laika on a Romanian postage stamp

But in October 2008, fifty-one years after her journey and after a monument had been erected in her honour near the facility in which she was trained, it was finally revealed that she had most likely perished a few hours after launch from overheating and stress caused by the failure of a rocket component to separate from the capsule.

“We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists working on the mission, said in 1998 that he regretted sending Laika to her death:

Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.

Laika in training and her memorial in Moscow // Soviet Space Program

But the mission was another great success for the Soviets, and the space programme continued. One of the most-travelled dogs was named Otvazhnaya (“Brave One”), who accompanied a dog named Snezhinka (“Snowflake”) into sub-orbital space on 2 July 1959 before making five more successful flights that year.

On 28 July 1960, Bars (“Snow Leopard”) and Lisichka (“Little Fox”) were chosen to follow Laika into orbit, but both perished after their rocket explosively disintegrated just twenty-eight seconds into the launch sequence. This crash caused considerable uproar within the Soviet space programme, as the problem that caused the explosion had supposedly been fixed.

Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Arrow”) were the next successful orbiters, spending a day in space on 19 August 1960 aboard Sputnik 5, which was a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals. The craft contained Belka, Strelka, a grey rabbit, forty-two mice, two rats, flies, and several plants and fungi, as well as some slightly creepy strips of human flesh.

All the animals survived the spacecraft’s return to Earth on 20 August, though telemetry showed that one of the dogs had suffered a seizure during the fourth orbit. That led directly to the decision to limit Yuri Gagarin’s legendary flight the following year to just three orbits before returning to Earth.

Strelka subsequently had six puppies with Pushok, a male dog kept around the research base, who participated in many of the ground-based experiments but didn’t travel to space. One of the puppies was named Pushinka (“Fluffy”) and was given to US president John F Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, by Khrushchev in 1961.

The dog was initially kept away from the White House by Kennedy’s staff over fear that its body may have been implanted with microphones, but after a medical check she was brought into the home and won the heart of another of Kennedy’s dogs — a Welsh Terrier named Charlie. They had a litter of puppies together themselves, which Kennedy affectionately referred to as “pupniks”. Their descendents are still living today, and Belka and Strelka were celebrated in 2010 with an animated feature film named Space Dogs.

Left: A model of Strelka in Australia in 1993 // Right: Pushinka and her pupniks

On 1 December 1960, tragedy struck. Mushka — who was shortlisted for Laika’s mission but lost out after — finally made it into space aboard Sputnik 6, accompanied by Pchyolka (“Little Bee”) and other animals, plants and insects. They were in good health when the rocket began its re-entry, but at the last minute a navigation error meant that the craft would have landed outside of Soviet borders.

The CIA intercepted and decoded this image of one of the dogs aboard Sputnik 6 in December 1960

Fear of foreign agents inspecting the capsule trumped the lives of the dogs aboard the spacecraft, and so it was intentionally destroyed, killing everything aboard.

On 22 December 1960, the team tried once more. Damka (“Queen of Checkers”) and Krasavka (“Little Beauty”) were selected from the pool and prepared for launch.

Almost immediately after taking off, however, the rocket encountered difficulties. The upper stage booster failed, causing the craft to re-enter the atmosphere after reaching a maximum altitude of 214km. The back-up plan in this situation was to eject the dogs and then self-destruct, but the ejector seat failed to operate, leaving the dogs stuck in the capsule as the self-destruct sequence ticked down.

Then something incredible happened. The self-destruct module also shorted out — aborting the sequence, and the capsule plummeted back to Earth intact, landing in deep snow in Siberia. A backup self-destruct timer had been set for 60 hours, so a team was scrambled to quickly locate the craft. They found it on the first day, but without sufficient daylight to disarm the self-destruct sequence and open the capsule. They were only able to report that the window of the capsule had frosted over in the -45C temperatures of the landing site, and no signs of life were heard from inside.

The next day, at dawn, they returned to the capsule fearing the worst. As it was opened, however, barking was heard — Damka and Krasavka were alive, though the mice that had accompanied them on the mission had frozen to death in the freezing temperatures of Siberia.

The dogs were wrapped in sheepskin coats immediately, and flown to Moscow, where they were thawed out and given the best medical care. Both survived, and Krasavka was adopted by Oleg Gazenko, a Lieutenant General who’d fought in World War II and the Korean War, and supervised the mission. Krasavka went on to have a litter of puppies, before dying at home 14 years later.

Damka and Krasavka narrowly escaped tragedy, before living long and healthy lives.

As the Soviet spaceflight programme ramped up towards its first human launch in 1961, the dogs began to be accompanied by dummy cosmonauts.

Chernushka (“Blackie”) flew on Sputnik 9 on 9 March 1961 with a dummy named Ivan Ivanovich, some mice and a guinea pig. To test the spacecraft communications, they placed a recording of a choir in Ivanovich’s chest, so that any radio stations picking up the signal would understand he wasn’t real. He was ejected at altitude, and parachuted to the ground, while Chernushka was recovered unharmed from the capsule.

Zvyozdochka (“Starlet”, named by Gagarin himself) flew on Sputnik 10 on the final practice flight before Gagarin’s voyage on 25 March 1961, again accompanied by Ivanovich and his choir recording — which this time had been augmented with a recipe for cabbage soup to confuse anyone listening in. Again, both the dummy and the dog returned safely to Earth, and Ivanovich was auctioned in 1993 for $189,500, still in his spacesuit. Today he lives in the US National Air and Space museum.

Ugolyok and Veterok in space. 1966.

Following Gagarin’s triumphant mission on 12 April 1961, the Soviets slowly dismantled their dogs-in-space programme as it was no longer required. Its final flight, the Cosmos 110 mission, came five years later on 22 February 1966. It carried two dogs — Veterok (“Light Breeze”) and Ugolyok (“Coal”), who spent a record-breaking 22 days in orbit, testing whether life could survive for longer durations in orbit. As well as Veterok and Ugolyok, it carried yeast cells, blood cells and live bacteria.

The long-duration mission was a success, and the dogs were safely landed back on Earth. However, in their medical checkups afterward, it was discovered that their muscle and bone structures had sustained some damage from spending such a long time zero gravity, paving the way for later discoveries on the biological effects of spaceflight on the human body. Veterok and Ugolyok held the record for spaceflight duration until Skylab 2 in 1973, and still hold the record for the longest spaceflight by dogs.

A number of other dogs flew on sub-orbital flights, including Dymka (“Smoky”), Modnitsa (“Fashionable”) and Kozyavka (“Little Gnat”), as well as at least four others whose names don’t survive to this day. Almost all survived, with the exception of two of the unnamed dogs who perished in failed launches.

Without their contributions, and those of their canine colleagues, Russia would never have been able to launch Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin in 1961, and the space race may never have taken off. Their heroism and bravery fuelled the earliest space exploration missions, paving the way for humans to later follow.

So to Dezik and Tsygan, Smelaya, Malyshka, ZIB, Ryzhik, Albina and Tsyganka, Mushka, Otvazhnaya, and Snezhunka, Bars and Lisichka, Belka and Strelka, Pushok, Pchyolka, Damka and Krasavka, Chernushka, Zvyozdochka, Veterok and Ugolyok, Dymka, Modnitsa, Kozyavka — and, most of all, Laika — I’d like to thank you for everything that you’ve done for mankind.

Хорошая собака, or as we say in the West…

Good dog.

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