Cutting down history

10 Jan

Does the Glen Canyon Dam need to come down?

10 Jan

Goldwater, Bower and the disastrous damming of the Colorado River

How two bitter opponents came to a meeting of the minds on water in the West.

The Colorado River

The Colorado River runs below Glen Canyon Dam. (Los Angeles Times / February 6, 2005)

By Paul VanDevelderJanuary 10, 2014

As all eyes in the West look to the courts, the skies and the Colorado River for relief from 14 years of drought, it might be useful to remember the battles waged by two titans of the 20th century who played leading roles in the drama that led to the current mess.

The first protagonist was Arizona’s favorite son, Sen. Barry Goldwater. His nemesis was the fearless environmental crusader, David Brower, a founder of the Sierra Club known to those who loved him as The Archdruid. Early in their parallel careers, these two men were fierce adversaries over water projects across the Southwest. By the end of their lives, however, the tables had turned in the most unpredictable of ways.

During the boom years for damming American rivers, no politician was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Goldwater. He was the Bureau of Reclamation’s best friend in Congress whenever the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects such as the Glen Canyon Dam.

While Goldwater and the reclamation bureau were enjoying a golden age for water projects, Brower battled to stop many of Goldwater’s pet endeavors. Most notably, Brower led an unsuccessful national campaign to stop Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell in northern Arizona. Brower called his defeat on Glen Canyon “the darkest day of my life” and vowed it would never happen again. It didn’t.

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. In 1997, PBS aired the documentary “Cadillac Desert,” based on Marc Reisner’s book of the same name. In the third of four episodes, Goldwater and Reisner discussed the adjudication of the Colorado River, and the silver-haired paragon of American conservatism revealed a remarkable change of heart. Looking out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix, he asked Reisner a pair of rhetorical questions that clearly pained him: “What have we done to this beautiful desert, to our wild rivers? All that dam building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

A few months later, I had lunch with Brower and asked him what he made of Goldwater’s change of heart. Brower was then in his late 80s but just as fierce as ever, if not more so. He cackled with an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called him! And he answered, and I said, ‘Barry, this is David Brower; what do you say we do the right thing: help me take out Glen Canyon Dam.'”

The Archdruid looked at me, eyes twinkling with green fire. “He said he would; he said that was a grand idea. Then he died a few months later.”

And Brower died not long after that.

In many respects, trouble with the Colorado began long before Goldwater and Brower fought over Glen Canyon. The trouble with the Colorado, and any other river, for that matter, is that nothing in nature is static. Flow rates, based on historical data, are inevitably flawed. When the Colorado’s water was divvied up between the states and Indian tribes in the 1960s, the math was based on hydrologic fictions. The river’s annual flow was overestimated by millions of acre-feet, and taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not change that by one drop. The nation had fully invested in the vain belief that we could dam its way out of aridity and drought, and it had built up the desert based on that faith.

Nevertheless, taking out Glen Canyon Dam would make a resounding statement. It would say: Wild rivers rock. It would say: “We should have left well enough alone; we should have listened to John Wesley Powell and limited settlement on arid lands.”

We’ll never see the likes again of Goldwater, Brower and their cohort. Guys like Floyd Dominy and Edward Abbey were men of a time, of an America that no longer exists. We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the Indian wars and reverse-engineer the outcomes to create a legacy with less shame, less betrayal, less destructive exploitation. We’re stuck with what we’ve constructed, just as we’re stuck with a long history of terrible water management.

The Colorado River has always been a special case. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, and climate modeling suggests things are likely to get worse. Ironically, the first state in line to lose water from diminishing reserves is Arizona. Suddenly, those 280 golf courses in the greater Phoenix area, not to mention tens of thousands of swimming pools, look kind of ridiculous. And don’t look now, but guess who’s first in line for the water that would otherwise water those golf courses?

The tribes. Dozens of them: the Fort Mojaves, the Shoshones, the Chemehuevi and Quechan, the Hopi and Navajo, et al. Where water flows between a rock and a dry place, tribes get first dibs.

Karma, it seems, is very patient, and it has its own funny way of asking, “What in the world were we thinking?”,0,3785716.story#ixzz2q0Sn18rB


Red Bull and Caterham (F1) give their V8s one last blast – rev limiters removed

27 Nov

As they prep to switch to the turbo V6 next year a fitting sendoff was necessary for the Renault RS27 after the Brazillian GP…
The removed the rev limiters and let ’em rip. Supposedly Red Bull hit 22,000 RPM

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber helped Red Bull and Renault to send off their final V8 engine with one last blast.

Webber personally fired up the Renault RS27 in his chassis, glowed white hot as it screamed away at maximum revs with its limiter disabled.

Lotus and Caterham added to the cacophony of noise in the pit lane after the Brazilian Grand Prix as Formula One said goodbye to the V8 engine formula which has been in service since the 2006 season.


Red Bull:






Fun facts about the Renault RS27:

  • 2.4 L V8 (2006 to 2013)
  • 8 years of competition
  • 59 wins – 40% of wins in the V8 era
  • 65 pole positions
  • 55 fastest laps
  • 3665.5 points
  • 5 Constructors’ world titles
  • 5 Drivers’ world titles
  • 750 bhp maximum power (2013 version, typical car installation, typical temp/pressure/humidity)
  • 18,000 rpm maximum engine speed (2013 version)
  • 95kg weight, FIA perimeter
  • 1,271 engines built, 683 for track use, 588 for dyno use
  • more than 2 000 000 km total
  • more than 5 000 components per engine
  • more than 7 600 000 parts used
  • 21,800 pistons used
  • 43,200 inlet valves used
  • 45,900 exhaust valves used
  • 43,800 connecting-rod bolts fitted
  • 22,000 spark plugs used
  • 10,600 oil filters used


Jean-Michel Jalinier, Renault Sport F1 President and Managing Director: “The V8 era has been a particularly successful one for Renault, and one that stands up to the exceptionally high standards we set with the V10 in the 90s. We can be very proud of the ‘hit’ rate of wins and poles, but equally of the progress we have made, particularly under the frozen engine regulations. What is equally satisfying is the relationships we have built up with all of our teams. We have worked hard on installation to provide the most driveable engine, sacrificing outright power to enable greater integration and other benefits such as energy recovery and cooling to make the overall speed of the car quicker. To have won with four different teams and six different drivers shows the relationships have flourished.”

22 Absolutely Essential Diagrams You Need For Camping

12 Nov

22 Absolutely Essential Diagrams You Need For Camping

From survival to s’mores, here’s everything you need to know to ensure a flawless camping trip. posted on June 17, 2013 at 2:27pm EDT

1. How to Build a Campfire

How to Build a Campfire

2. Tent Tips

Tent Tips

3. Everything You Need to Know About the Technicality of S’mores

Everything You Need to Know About the Technicality of S'mores

4. How to Estimate Remaining Daylight with Your Hand

How to Estimate Remaining Daylight with Your Hand

5. Snacks to Pack

Snacks to Pack

6. What You Can Do to Repel Mosquitoes

What You Can Do to Repel Mosquitoes

7. How to Sleep Warm

How to Sleep Warm

8. How to Survive Hypothermia

How to Survive Hypothermia

9. Backpacker’s Checklist

Backpacker's Checklist

10. How to Rig a Tarp

How to Rig a Tarp

11. How to Get Your Dutch Oven to the Right Temperature

How to Get Your Dutch Oven to the Right Temperature

You can very easily adapt recipes you can make in a kitchen oven to an outdoor dutch oven.

12. How to Identify Animal Tracks

How to Identify Animal Tracks

13. Know Your Stargazing Events This Summer

Know Your Stargazing Events This Summer

14. 10 Easy Fire Starters

10 Easy Fire Starters

15. Kayak Camping Checklist

Kayak Camping Checklist

16. A Guide to Hammock Camping

A Guide to Hammock Camping

17. Guide to Spider Bites

Guide to Spider Bites

18. Checklist for Car Camping

Checklist for Car Camping

19. How to Make Shelters in Survival Situations Using Nature

How to Make Shelters in Survival Situations Using Nature

20. How to React to a Wildlife Encounter

How to React to a Wildlife Encounter

21. Tarp Tips

Tarp Tips

22. Know Your Poisonous Plants

Know Your Poisonous Plants

4 Nov

Master of many trades

Our age reveres the narrow specialist but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things

Renaissance man: Portrait of a Young Gentleman in His Studio by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1530. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. Photo by CorbisRenaissance man: Portrait of a Young Gentleman in His Studio by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1530. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Photo by Corbis

Robert Twigger is a British poet, writer and explorer. He lives in Cairo, Egypt.


I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?

The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labour was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labour. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘Nothing tends to materialise man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labour.’

Ever since the beginning of the industrial era, we have known both the benefits and the drawbacks of dividing jobs into ever smaller and more tedious ones. Riches must be balanced against boredom and misery. But as long as a boring job retains an element of physicality, one can find a rhythm, entering a ‘flow’ state wherein time passes easily and the hard labour is followed by a sense of accomplishment. In Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur (1962) there is a marvellous description of Neal Cassady working like a demon, changing tyres in a tyre shop and finding himself uplifted rather than diminished by the work. Industrialism tends toward monopathy because of the growth of divided labour, but it is only when the physical element is removed that the real problems begin. When the body remains still and the mind is forced to do something repetitive, the human inside us rebels.

The average job now is done by someone who is stationary in front of some kind of screen. Someone who has just one overriding interest is tunnel-visioned, a bore, but also a specialist, an expert. Welcome to the monopathic world, a place where only the single-minded can thrive. Of course, the rest of us are very adept at pretending to be specialists. We doctor our CVs to make it look as if all we ever wanted to do was sell mobile homes or Nespresso machines. It’s common sense, isn’t it, to try to create the impression that we are entirely focused on the job we want? And wasn’t it ever thus?

In fact, it wasn’t. Classically, a polymath was someone who ‘had learnt much’, conquering many different subject areas. As the 15th-century polymath Leon Battista Alberti — an architect, painter, horseman, archer and inventor — wrote: ‘a man can do all things if he will’. During the Renaissance, polymathy became part of the idea of the ‘perfected man’, the manifold master of intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits. Leonardo da Vinci was said to be as proud of his ability to bend iron bars with his hands as he was of the Mona Lisa.

Polymaths such as Da Vinci, Goethe and Benjamin Franklin were such high achievers that we might feel a bit reluctant to use the word ‘polymath’ to describe our own humble attempts to become multi-talented. We can’t all be geniuses. But we do all still indulge in polymathic activity; it’s part of what makes us human.

So, say that we all have at least the potential to become polymaths. Once we have a word, we can see the world more clearly. And that’s when we notice a huge cognitive dissonance at the centre of Western culture: a huge confusion about how new ideas, new discoveries, and new art actually come about.

Science, for example, likes to project itself as clean, logical, rational and unemotional. In fact, it’s pretty haphazard, driven by funding and ego, reliant on inspired intuition by its top-flight practitioners. Above all it is polymathic. New ideas frequently come from the cross-fertilisation of two separate fields. Francis Crick, who intuited the structure of DNA, was originally a physicist; he claimed this background gave him the confidence to solve problems that biologists thought were insoluble. Richard Feynman came up with his Nobel Prize-winning ideas about quantum electrodynamics by reflecting on a peculiar hobby of his — spinning a plate on his finger (he also played the bongos and was an expert safe-cracker). Percy Spencer, a radar expert, noticed that the radiation produced by microwaves melted a chocolate bar in his pocket and developed microwave ovens. And Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the modern machine gun, was inspired by a self-cocking mousetrap he had made in his teens.

I thought you were either a ‘natural’ or nothing. Then I saw natural athletes fall behind when they didn’t practice enough. This, shamefully, was a great morale booster

Despite all this, there remains the melancholy joke about the scientist who outlines a whole new area of study only to dismiss it out of hand because it trespasses across too many field boundaries and would never get funding. Somehow, this is just as believable as any number of amazing breakthroughs inspired by the cross-fertilisation of disciplines.

One could tell similar stories about breakthroughs in art — cubism crossed the simplicity of African carving with a growing non-representational trend in European painting. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy took street graffiti and made it acceptable to galleries. In business, cross-fertilisation is the source of all kinds of innovations: fibres inspired by spider webs have become a source of bulletproof fabric; practically every mobile phone also seems to be a computer, a camera and a GPS tracker. To come up with such ideas, you need to know things outside your field. What’s more, the further afield your knowledge extends, the greater potential you have for innovation.

Invention fights specialisation at every turn. Human nature and human progress are polymathic at root. And life itself is various — you need many skills to be able to live it. In traditional cultures, everyone can do a little of everything. Though one man might be the best hunter or archer or trapper, he doesn’t do only that.

The benefits of polymathic endeavour in innovation are not so hard to see. What is less obvious is how we ever allowed ourselves to lose sight of them. The problem, I believe, is some mistaken assumptions about learning. We come to believe that we can only learn when we are young, and that only ‘naturals’ can acquire certain skills. We imagine that we have a limited budget for learning, and that different skills absorb all the effort we plough into them, without giving us anything to spend on other pursuits.

Our hunch that it’s easier to learn when you’re young isn’t completely wrong, or at least it has a real basis in neurology. However, the pessimistic assumption that learning somehow ‘stops’ when you leave school or university or hit thirty is at odds with the evidence. It appears that a great deal depends on the nucleus basalis, located in the basal forebrain. Among other things, this bit of the brain produces significant amounts of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells. This in turn dictates how readily we form memories of various kinds, and how strongly we retain them. When the nucleus basalisis ‘switched on’, acetylcholine flows and new connections occur. When it is switched off, we make far fewer new connections.

Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently ‘switched on’. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time. Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time — if they see or hear something once they remember it. But as we progress towards the later teenage years the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.

Over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections

I know from my own experience of studying martial arts in Japan that intense study brings rewards that are impossible to achieve by casual application. For a year I studied an hour a day three days a week and made minimal progress. For a further year I switched to an intensive course of five hours a day five days a week. The gains were dramatic and permanent, resulting in a black belt and an instructor certificate. Deep down I was pessimistic that I could actually learn a martial art. I thought you were either a ‘natural’ or nothing. Then I saw natural athletes fall behind when they didn’t practice enough. This, shamefully, was a great morale booster.

The fact that I succeeded where others were failing also gave me an important key to the secret of learning. There was nothing special about me, but I worked at it and I got it. One reason many people shy away from polymathic activity is that they think they can’t learn new skills. I believe we all can — and at any age too — but only if we keep learning. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the watchword of brain plasticity.

People as old as 90 who actively acquire new interests that involve learning retain their ability to learn. But if we stop taxing the nucleus basalis, it begins to dry up. In some older people it has been shown to contain no acetylcholine — they have been ‘switched off’ for so long the organ no longer functions. In extreme cases this is considered to be one factor in Alzheimers and other forms of dementia — treated, effectively at first, by artificially raising acetylcholine levels. But simply attempting new things seems to offer health benefits to people who aren’t suffering from Alzheimers. After only short periods of trying, the ability to make new connections develops. And it isn’t just about doing puzzles and crosswords; you really have to try and learn something new.

Monopathy, or over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory. One sees this in the academic arena, where ancient professors vie with each other to expel intruders from their hard-won patches. Just look at the bitter arguments over how far the sciences should be allowed to encroach on the humanities. But the polymath, whatever his or her ‘level’ or societal status, is not constrained to defend their own turf. The polymath’s identity and value comes from multiple mastery.

Besides, it may be that the humanities have less to worry about than it seems. An intriguing study funded by the Dana foundation and summarised by Dr Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that studying the performing arts — dance, music and acting — actually improves one’s ability to learn anything else. Collating several studies, the researchers found that performing arts generated much higher levels of motivation than other subjects. These enhanced levels of motivation made students aware of their own ability to focus and concentrate on improvement. Later, even if they gave up the arts, they could apply their new-found talent for concentration to learning anything new.

I find this very suggestive. The old Renaissance idea of mastering physical as well as intellectual skills appears to have real grounding in improving our general ability to learn new things. It is having the confidence that one can learn something new that opens the gates to polymathic activity.

There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world. Call it polymathics. Any such field would have to include physical, artistic and scientific elements to be truly rounded. It isn’t just that mastering physical skills aids general learning. The fact is, if we exclude the physicality of existence and reduce everything worth knowing down to book-learning, we miss out on a huge chunk of what makes us human. Remember, Feynman had to be physically competent enough to spin a plate to get his new idea.

Polymathics might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity — crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But polymathics would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgment in all areas. There is often something rather obvious about people with narrow interests — they are bores, and bores always lack a sense of humour. They just don’t see that it’s absurd to devote your life to a tiny area of study and have no other outside interests. I suspect that the converse is true: by being more polymathic, you develop a better sense of proportion and balance — which gives you a better sense of humour. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Published on 4 November 2013

NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration

11 Oct

NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration

The Voyager probe’s three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) can be seen mounted end-to-end on the left-extending boom. (NASA)

In 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left Earth on a five-year mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Thirty-six years later, the car-size probe is still exploring, still sending its findings home. It has now put more than 19 billion kilometers between itself and the sun. Last week NASA announced that Voyager 1 had become the first man-made object to reach interstellar space.

The distance this craft has covered is almost incomprehensible. It’s so far away that it takes more than 17 hours for its signals to reach Earth. Along the way, Voyager 1 gave scientists their first close-up looks at Saturn, took the first images of Jupiter’s rings, discovered many of the moons circling those planets and revealed that Jupiter’s moon Io has active volcanoes. Now the spacecraft is discovering what the edge of the solar system is like, piercing the heliosheath where the last vestiges of the sun’s influence are felt and traversing the heliopause where cosmic currents overcome the solar wind. Voyager 1 is expected to keep working until 2025 when it will finally run out of power.

None of this would be possible without the spacecraft’s three batteries filled with plutonium-238. In fact, Most of what humanity knows about the outer planets came back to Earth on plutonium power. Cassini’s ongoing exploration of Saturn, Galileo’s trip to Jupiter, Curiosity’s exploration of the surface of Mars, and the 2015 flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft are all fueled by the stuff. The characteristics of this metal’s radioactive decay make it a super-fuel. More importantly, there is no other viable option. Solar power is too weak, chemical batteries don’t last, nuclear fission systems are too heavy. So, we depend on plutonium-238, a fuel largely acquired as by-product of making nuclear weapons.

But there’s a problem: We’ve almost run out.

“We’ve got enough to last to the end of this decade. That’s it,” said Steve Johnson, a nuclear chemist at Idaho National Laboratory. And it’s not just the U.S. reserves that are in jeopardy. The entire planet’s stores are nearly depleted.

The country’s scientific stockpile has dwindled to around 36 pounds. To put that in perspective, the battery that powers NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is currently studying the surface of Mars, contains roughly 10 pounds of plutonium, and what’s left has already been spoken for and then some. The implications for space exploration are dire: No more plutonium-238 means not exploring perhaps 99 percent of the solar system. In effect, much of NASA’s $1.5 billion-a-year (and shrinking) planetary science program is running out of time. The nuclear crisis is so bad that affected researchers know it simply as “The Problem.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The required materials, reactors, and infrastructure are all in place to create plutonium-238 (which, unlike plutonium-239, is practically impossible to use for a nuclear bomb). In fact, the U.S. government recently approved spending about $10 million a year to reconstitute production capabilities the nation shuttered almost two decades ago. In March, the DOE even produced a tiny amount of fresh plutonium inside a nuclear reactor in Tennessee.

It’s a good start, but the crisis is far from solved. Political ignorance and shortsighted squabbling, along with false promises from Russia, and penny-wise management of NASA’s ever-thinning budget still stand in the way of a robust plutonium-238 production system. The result: Meaningful exploration of the solar system has been pushed to a cliff’s edge. One ambitious space mission could deplete remaining plutonium stockpiles, and any hiccup in a future supply chain could undermine future missions.


The only natural supplies of plutonium-238 vanished eons before the Earth formed some 4.6 billion years ago. Exploding stars forge the silvery metal, but its half-life, or time required for 50 percent to disappear through decay, is just under 88 years.

Fortunately, we figured out how to produce it ourselves — and to harness it to create a remarkably persistent source of energy. Like other radioactive materials, plutonium-238 decays because its atomic structure is unstable. When an atom’s nucleus spontaneously decays, it fires off a helium core at high speed while leaving behind a uranium atom. These helium bullets, called alpha radiation, collide en masse with nearby atoms within a lump of plutonium — a material twice as dense as lead. The energy can cook a puck of plutonium-238 to nearly 1,260 degrees Celsius. To turn that into usable power, you wrap the puck with thermoelectrics that convert heat to electricity. Voila: You’ve got a battery that can power a spacecraft for decades.

“It’s like a magic isotope. It’s just right,” said Jim Adams, NASA’s deputy chief technologist and former deputy director of the space agency’s planetary science division.

A radiation-shielded glove box at Savannah River Site. In chambers like these during the cold war, the government assembled plutonium-238 fuel for use in spacecraft such as Galileo and Ulysses. (Savannah River Site)

U.S. production came primarily from two nuclear laboratories that created plutonium-238 as a byproduct of making bomb-grade plutonium-239. The Hanford Site in Washington state left the plutonium-238 mixed into a cocktail of nuclear wastes. The Savannah River Site in South Carolina, however, extracted and refined more than 360 pounds during the Cold War to power espionage tools, spy satellites, and dozens of NASA’s pluckiest spacecraft.

By 1988, with the Iron Curtain full of holes, the U.S. and Russia began to dismantle wartime nuclear facilities. Hanford and Savannah River no longer produced any plutonium-238. But Russia continued to harvest the material by processing nuclear reactor fuel at a nuclear industrial complex called Mayak. The Russians sold their first batch, weighing 36 pounds, to the U.S. in 1993 for more than $45,000 per ounce. Russia had become the planet’s sole supplier, but it soon fell behind on orders. In 2009, it reneged on a deal to sell 22 pounds to the U.S.

Whether or not Russia has any material left or can still create some is uncertain. “What we do know is that they’re not willing to sell it anymore,” said Alan Newhouse, a retired nuclear space consultant who spearheaded the first purchase of Russian plutonium-238. “One story I’ve heard … is that they don’t have anything left to sell.”

By 2005, according a Department of Energy report (.pdf), the U.S. government owned 87 pounds, of which roughly two-thirds was designated for national security projects, likely to power deep-sea espionage hardware. The DOE would not disclose to WIRED what is left today, but scientists close to the issue say just 36 pounds remain earmarked for NASA.

That’s enough for the space agency to launch a few small deep-space missions before 2020. A twin of the Curiosity rover is planned to lift off for Mars in 2020 and will require nearly a third of the stockpile. After that, NASA’s interstellar exploration program is left staring into a void — especially for high-profile, plutonium-hungry missions, like the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter. To seek signs of life around Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, such a spacecraft could require more than 47 pounds of plutonium.

“The supply situation is already impacting mission planning,” said Alice Caponiti, a nuclear engineer who leads the DOE’s efforts to restart plutonium-238 production. “If you’re planning a mission that’s going to take eight years to plan, the first thing you’re going to want to know is if you have power.”

Many of the eight deep-space robotic missions that NASA had envisioned over the next 15 years have already been delayed or canceled. Even more missions — some not yet even formally proposed — are silent casualties of NASA’s plutonium poverty. Since 1994, scientists have pleaded with lawmakers for the money to restart production. The DOE believes a relatively modest $10 to 20 million in funding each year through 2020 could yield an operation capable of making between 3.3 and 11 pounds of plutonium-238 annually — plenty to keep a steady stream of spacecraft in business.


In 2012, a line item in NASA’s $17-billion budget fed $10 million in funding toward an experiment to create a tiny amount of plutonium-238. The goals: gauge how much could be made, estimate full-scale production costs, and simply prove the U.S. could pull it off again. It was half of the money requested by NASA and the DOE, the space agency’s partner in the endeavor (the Atomic Energy Act forbids NASA to manufacture plutonium-238). The experiment may last seven more years and cost between $85 and $125 million.

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, nuclear scientists have used the High Flux Isotope Reactor to produce a few micrograms of plutonium-238. A fully reconstituted plutonium program described in the DOE’s latest plan, released this week, would also utilize a second reactor west of Idaho Falls, called the Advanced Test Reactor.

That facility is located on the 890-square-mile nuclear ranch of Idaho National Laboratory. The scrub of the high desert rolls past early morning visitors as the sun crests the Teton Range. Armed guards stop and inspect vehicles at a roadside outpost, waving those with the proper credentials toward a reactor complex fringed with barbed wire and electrified fences.

The Advanced Test reactor’s unique four—leaf—clover core design. (Idaho National Laboratory)

Beyond the last security checkpoint is a warehouse-sized, concrete-floored room. Yellow lines painted on the floor cordon off what resembles an aboveground swimming pool capped with a metal lid. A bird’s-eye view reveals four huge, retractable metal slabs; jump through one and you’d plunge into 36 feet of water that absorbs radiation. Halfway to the bottom is the reactor’s 4-foot-tall core, its four-leaf clover shape dictated by slender, wedge-shaped bars of uranium. “That’s where you’d stick your neptunium,” nuclear chemist Steve Johnson said, pointing to a diagram of the radioactive clover.

Neptunium, a direct neighbor to plutonium on the periodic table and a stable byproduct of Cold War-era nuclear reactors, is the material from which plutonium-238 is most easily made. In Johnson’s arrangement, engineers pack tubes with neptunium-237 and slip them into the reactor core. Every so often an atom of neptunium-237 absorbs a neutron emitted by the core’s decaying uranium, later shedding an electron to become plutonium-238. A year or two later — after harmful isotopes vanish — technicians could dissolve the tubes in acid, remove the plutonium, and recycle the neptunium into new targets.

The inescapable pace of radioactive decay and limited reactor space mean it may take five to seven years to create 3.3 pounds of battery-ready plutonium. Even if full production reaches that rate, NASA needs to squeeze every last watt out of what will inevitably always be a rather small stockpile.

The standard-issue power source, called a multi-mission thermoelectric generator — the kind that now powers the Curiosity rover — won’t cut it for space exploration’s future. “They’re trustworthy, but they use a heck of a lot of plutonium,” Johnson said.

In other words, NASA doesn’t just need new plutonium. It needs a new battery.


In a cluttered basement at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, metal cages and transparent plastic boxes house a menagerie of humming devices. Many look like stainless-steel barbells about a meter long and riddled with wires; others resemble white crates the size of two-drawer filing cabinets.

The unpretentious machines are prototypes of NASA’s next-generation nuclear power system, called the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator. It’s shaping up to be a radically different, more efficient nuclear battery than any before it.

On the outside, the machines are motionless. Inside is a flurry of heat-powered motion driven by the Stirling cycle, developed in 1816 by the Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling. Gasoline engines burn fuel to rapidly expand air that pushes pistons, but Stirling converters need only a heat gradient. The greater the difference between a Stirling engine’s hot and cold parts, the faster its pistons hum. When heat warms one end of a sealed chamber containing helium, the gas expands, pushing a magnet-laden piston through a tube of coiled wire to generate electricity. The displaced, cooling gas then moves back to the hot side, sucking the piston backward to restart the cycle.

“Nothing is touching anything. That’s the whole beauty of the converter,” said Lee Mason, one of several NASA engineers crowded into the basement. Their pistons float like air hockey pucks on the cycling helium gas.

For every 100 watts of heat generated, the Stirling generator converts more than 30 watts into electricity. That’s nearly five times better than the nuclear battery powering Curiosity. In effect, the generator can use one-fourth of the plutonium while boosting electrical output by at least 25 percent. Less plutonium also means these motors weigh two-thirds less than Curiosity’s 99-pound battery — a big difference for spacecraft on 100 million-mile-or-more journeys. Curiosity was the biggest, heaviest spacecraft NASA could send to Mars at the time, with a vast majority of its mass dedicated to a safe landing — not science. Reducing weight expands the possibilities for advanced instruments on future missions.

But the Stirling generator’s relatively complicated technology, while crucial to the design, worries some space scientists. “There are people who are very concerned that this unit has moving parts,” said John Hamley, manager of NASA Glenn’s nuclear battery program. The concern is that the motion might interfere with spacecraft instruments that must be sensitive enough to map gravity fields, electromagnetism, and other subtle phenomena in space.

As a workaround, each generator uses two Stirling converters sitting opposite each other. An onboard computer constantly synchronizes their movements to cancel out troublesome vibrations. To detect and correct design flaws, engineers have abused their generator prototypes in vacuum chambers, assaulted them on shaking tables, and barraged them with powerful blasts of radiation and magnetism.

But NASA typically requires new technologies to be tested for one and a half expected lifetimes before flying them in space. For the Stirling generator, that would take 25 years. Earnest testing began in 2001, cutting the delay to 13 years – but that’s longer than NASA can wait: In 2008, only one of 10 nuclear-powered missions called for the device. By 2010, seven of eight deep-space missions planned through 2027 required them.

To speed things up, Hamley and his team run a dozen different units at a time. The oldest device has operated almost continuously for nearly 10 years while the newest design has churned since 2009. The combined data on the Stirling generators totals more than 50 years, enough for simulations to reliably fast-forward a model’s wear-and-tear. So far, so good. “Nothing right now is a show-stopper,” Hamley said. His team is currently building two flight-worthy units, plus a third for testing on the ground (Hamley expects Johnson’s team in Idaho to fuel it sometime next year).

For all of the technology’s promise, however, it “won’t solve this problem,” Johnson said. Even if the Stirling generator is used, plutonium-238 supplies will only stretch through 2022.

An early ASRG prototype. Its 10,016 hours of use has contributed to decades of combined data on the performance of NASA’s revolutionary nuclear battery. (Dave Mosher/WIRED)

Any hiccups in funding for plutonium-238 production could put planetary science into a tailspin and delay, strip down, or smother nuclear-powered missions. The outlook among scientists is simultaneously optimistic and rattled.

The reason: It took countless scientists and their lobbyists more than 15 years just to get lawmakers’ attention. A dire 2009 report about “The Problem,” authored by more than five dozen researchers, ultimately helped slip the first earnest funding request into the national budget in 2009. Congressional committees squabbled over if and how to spend $20 million of taxpayers’ money — it took them three years to make up their minds.


“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about plutonium-238,” said Jim Adams, the former deputy boss of NASA’s planetary science division.

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Adams stares through the glass at the nuclear wonder that powered his generation’s space exploration. Amid the fake moon dust sits a model of SNAP-27, a plutonium-238-fueled battery that every lunar landing after Apollo 11 to power its science experiments. “My father worked on the Lunar Excursion Model, which that thing was stored on, and it’s still up there making power,” Adams said.

Just a few steps away is a model of the first Viking Lander, which touched down on Mars in 1976 and began digging for water and life. It found neither. “We didn’t dig deep enough,” Adams said. “Just 4 centimeters below the depth that Viking dug was a layer of pristine ice.”

One floor up, a model of a Voyager spacecraft hangs from the ceiling. The three nuclear power supplies aboard the real spacecraft are what allow Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, to contact the Earth after 36 years. Any other type of power system would have expired decades ago.

The same technology fuels the Cassini spacecraft, which continues to survey Saturn, sending a priceless stream of data and almost-too-fantastic-to believe images of that planet and its many moons. New Horizons’ upcoming flyby of Pluto — nine and a half years in the making — wouldn’t be possible without a reliable source of nuclear fuel.

The Viking lander needed to dig deeper. Now we do, too.

Is It Safe to Launch Nuclear Batteries?

Anti-nuclear activists often state that just one microscopic particle of plutonium-238 inhaled into the lungs can lead to fatal cancer. There’s something to the claim, as pure plutonium-238 — ounce-for-ounce — is 270 times more radioactive than the plutonium-239 inside nuclear warheads. But the real risks to anyone of launching a nuclear battery are frequently mis-represented or misunderstood.
Statisticians compare apples to apples by looking at a threat’s severity, likelihood and affected population. An asteroid able to wipe out 1.5 billion people, for example, hits Earth about once about every 500,000 years — so the risk is high-severity, yet low-probability. Nuclear battery disasters, meanwhile, exist as low-severity and low-probability events, even near the launch pad.

Cassini, for example, left Earth with the most plutonium of any spacecraft at 72 pounds . Late in that probe’s launch there was about a 1 in 476 chance of plutonium release. If that had happened, fatalities over 50 years from that release would have numbered an estimated 1/25th of a person per the safety design of its nuclear batteries. The overall risk of cancer to a person near the launch pad during an accident was estimated at 7 in 100,000. Beyond that zone, risk was even lower.

Statisticians also considered a second hypothetical and potentially dangerous event with Cassini. To get to Saturn, the spacecraft swung back toward and flew within 600 miles of Earth, zooming by at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The chance of releasing plutonium then was less than 1 in a million. If a release of plutonium occurred, statisticians estimated it might cause 120 cancer fatalities — for the whole planet — over 50 years. By contrast, natural background radiation likely claims a million lives a year, and lightning strikes about 10,000 lives.

A launch accident with NASA’s Curiosity rover had a roughly 1 in 250 chance of releasing plutonium. But the low chance of cancer fatalities brought individual risk down to about 1 in 5.8 million. “I feel that they’re completely safe,” said Ryan Bechtel, DOE’s nuclear battery safety manager. “My entire family was there at Curiosity’s launch site.”

The golden age of auto racing

11 Oct

Scuderia Ferrari Factory

Lancia-Ferrari D50 in preparation for 1956 Monaco Grand Prix

Meet Jack – 93 yr old living in a cabin in the woods

10 Oct

Meet Jack English, a 93-year-old legend who lives in a cabin isolated deep in the Ventana Wilderness.

While on a hunting trip he learned that an old homestead in the Ventana Wilderness was being put up for auction by the estate of a childless heiress. He put a bid on the property and won. On the land he built a small cabin using materials from the land and milling trees by hand. When his wife passed away, Jack effectively left “society” and moved to the cabin full time.


Deaf and blind man hikes the Appalachian Trail

25 Sep

Deaf, blind AT hiker gets help in Bethel

Submitted photo

From left are Appalachian Trail hiker and special service provider Roni Lepore of New Jersey, AT hiker Roger Poulin of Winthrop, and hikers Paul Austin, Molly Siegel of Bethel and Samantha Southam of Bethel. Lepore and Poulin, who are both deaf, were helped through Mahoosuc Notch in Riley and Grafton townships by local hikers.


Alison Aloisio, Sun Media Wire

Oxford Hills |

Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 11:52 am

BETHEL — A deaf and nearly blind hiker is nearing the end of his 2,185-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and several Bethel residents have been helping him out as he approaches his goal.

Roger Poulin of Winthrop was born with Usher Syndrome, which affects vision and hearing and causes problems with balance. He is blind in one eye and has only tunnel vision in the other.

He set out on his journey more than three years ago, accompanied by Roni Lepore of New Jersey, who serves as what is known as a special service provider.

Like Poulin, Lepore is deaf. They met in 2007 at the Helen Keller National Center in New York while attending a Deaf-Blind Interpreters Training Seminar.

Poulin told Lepore about his dream to hike the AT, and he also said he needed a special service provider to go with him. Poulin said he wanted to do the hike in part to show others who are deaf-blind that the dual disability doesn’t have to stop them from taking on challenges. Lepore, a hiker herself, agreed to go along.

After doing a lot of research and taking camping classes, the two were prepared for their adventure — and for however long it took them to complete it.

Poulin used trekking poles to help him with his balance, as well as arm and shin guards, safety glasses, gloves and a helmet. Climbing over all the rocks, roots and other obstacles on the trail resulted in frequent falls, and he often ran into low-hanging tree branches.

He communicated with Lepore using American Sign Language. The two went by the trail names “Adventurous Cane” (Poulin) and “Rambling Shamrock.”

Along the way, Poulin said Aug. 30, they met many hikers who were amazed at his progress. It was slower than what he had first anticipated, however.

“At first, I thought that I could complete it in six to eight months, perhaps nine months” like blind hiker Bill Irwin, author of “Blind Courage,” Poulin said. “When I began hiking from the Springer Mountain (Georgia), I became frustrated so quickly when I realized that I couldn’t keep up with other hikers and hikers passing me most of the time. I had to change my entire view of the hiking world … I do not have to force myself to fit with the ‘mold’ of normal and sighted hikers’ ability.

“I reframed my thinking by focusing on my needs, well-being, and safety to hike. If I need more time to get through, it is OK. It was not easy in the beginning. Over time, it became easier on me to accept that I hike on my own terms — Deaf Blind Time. I give all what I can do to get through in one piece, then I am contented that I know that I do my best to continue with hiking and be patient to reach my dream. I didn’t expect that it would take more than two years, but if it takes four years to do it, then it is OK with me.”

When the pair arrived in Maine in June, the going got tougher.

Poulin described his experience in an interview at Bethel Outdoor Adventures, where Jeff and Patti Parsons and Molly Siegel have been among local outdoorspeople providing them with lodging and assistance.

“Maine is very challenging to hike compared to other states that I hiked in,” said Poulin, who signed his description to Lepore, who in turn typed it out on a laptop computer. “On the trail, there are many exposed roots, large-sized boulders, muddy/bog/boreal fields, steep to climb down especially wet and slippery rock/trail.

“Prior to the White Mountains and Maine, my daily average of miles to hike was between 12 to 15 miles a day. Upon my entrance into the White Mountains and beyond, my daily average dropped to 5 miles a day. By encountering this challenging terrain on the trail, I work hard to negotiate and get through. My body works very hard and I get pretty exhausted by end of day. The weight of my backpack creates another challenge for me to go over the challenging terrain as well due to my balance issue.

“When I first came to Bethel Outdoor Adventure in June, I met Jeffrey and Pattie Parsons. I asked them to shuttle us to the Grafton Notch State Park. My original plan was to hike 95 miles from Grafton Notch State Park to Route 27 in Stratton — around 10 days of hiking.

“I met them again a few weeks later, in July, to inquire where we can find a store to replace my broken bicycle helmet. Somehow, it led us to discuss my AT hiking plans with Jeff and Pattie and all of us got involved to get some help from the Bethel Outdoor Adventure with my hiking challenges.”

Poulin’s original timetable fell by the wayside.

“I had to exit in Andover when I experienced severe case of heartburn and dizzy vision,” he said. “I didn’t expect the terrain to be that daunting. I had to get off the trail to get some rest,” he said. “We had to change my hiking plans several times” and finally completed the section Aug. 28.

Poulin got some extra guidance from Siegel and others through the Mahoosuc Notch.

“From Grafton going south, it goes through the Mahoosuc Notch,” Poulin said. “It required special hiking plans since my SSP didn’t feel comfortable going in without support person(s). The blind hiker, Bulldog, in 2010, went through that area and it took him 9.5 hours to get through 1.1 miles of Mahoosuc Notch. With Operation MNOB (Mahoosuc Notch Or Bust) comprised of three hikers (Molly Siegel, Sam Southam and Paul Austin), we were able to get through without major incident within 4.5 hours.”

Siegel had helped Poulin and Lepore earlier with a re-supply hike. For the Mahoosuc hike, she and the others hiked two miles north on the trail and met the pair headed south.

“Roni let him know if there were dangers,” Siegel said. “We didn’t have to do that much. We took some of their gear.”

To warn Poulin of potential danger, such as a hole, Lepore would tap on one of Poulin’s poles to get his attention and then sign a warning.

Siegel said she enjoyed the unique circumstance of hiking along without a steady chatter among the group, which provided more opportunity to take in the natural surroundings.

She also said she was impressed “at how aware (Poulin) is of his surroundings, how well he uses his poles, and what a good system he and Lepore have to make it all work.”

Poulin and Lepore left Bethel on Saturday for the last leg of the hike — 114.5 miles from Route 15 in Monson to the summit of Mt. Katahdin, via the 100-Mile Wilderness.

Poulin was asked what he would do when he finishes his journey.

“People have been asking of me to write a book sharing my experiences of the past three years,” he said. “To be frank with you, all I think about is taking one thing at a time — to reach the northern terminus of Mount Katahdin. Once I conquer the Mount Katahdin, then I can start thinking about how to share my experience with the world. The reason for that is that I sustained an injury to my rib cage that forced me off the trail last July (2012) and ended my hiking season. Therefore, I want to focus on my ‘last haul.’”

He said he’s grateful for the help he has received while in the Bethel region.

“These folks at the Bethel Outdoor Adventure are like my family!” he said. “I feel very welcome and being part of the community. These people make efforts to communicate with me in any way they are able to via paper/pen, smartphone, laptop, email, gesture, etc. I am a lucky man meeting the Parsons and folks of the Bethel Outdoor Adventure and Bethel. They make an impact on my hiking experience by giving me some support. I may never know how much progress I might have made otherwise in Maine if not for them.”

To follow Poulin and Lepore’s progress on their final leg, see their blog.


Earth’s copper ring; or, a science experiment that didn’t catch on

19 Aug

This pairs well with another post of mine from a while ago:  Science You Never Knew Existed

The Forgotten Cold War Plan That Put a Ring of Copper Around the Earth



During the summer of 1963, Earth looked a tiny bit like Saturn.

The same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington and Beatlemania was born, the United States launched half a billion whisker-thin copper wires into orbit in an attempt to install a ring around the Earth. It was called Project West Ford, and it’s a perfect, if odd, example of the Cold War paranoia and military mentality at work in America’s early space program.

The Air Force and Department of Defense envisioned the West Ford ring as the largest radio antenna in human history. Its goal was to protect the nation’s long-range communications in the event of an attack from the increasingly belligerent Soviet Union.

During the late 1950’s, long-range communications relied on undersea cables or over-the-horizon radio. These were robust, but not invulnerable. Should the Soviets have attacked an undersea telephone or telegraph cable, America would only have been able to rely on radio broadcasts to communicate overseas. But the fidelity of the ionosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that makes most long-range radio broadcasts possible, is at the mercy of the sun: It is routinely disrupted by solar storms. The U.S. military had identified a problem.

A potential solution was born in 1958 at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, a research station on Hanscom Air Force Base northwest of Boston. Project Needles, as it was originally known, was Walter E. Morrow’s idea. He suggested that if Earth possessed a permanent radio reflector in the form of an orbiting ring of copper threads, America’s long-range communications would be immune from solar disturbances and out of reach of nefarious Soviet plots.

Each copper wire was about 1.8 centimeters in length. This was half the wavelength of the 8 GHz transmission signal beamed from Earth, effectively turning each filament into what is known as a dipole antenna. The antennas would boost long-range radio broadcasts without depending on the fickle ionosphere.

Today it’s hard to imagine a time where filling space with millions of tiny metal projectiles was considered a good idea. But West Ford was spawned before men had set foot in space, when generals were in charge of NASA’s rockets, and most satellites and spacecraft hadn’t flown beyond the drafting table. The agency operated under a “Big Sky Theory.” Surely space is so big that the risks of anything crashing into a stray bit of space junk were miniscule compared to the threat of communism.

The project was renamed West Ford, for the neighboring town of Westford, Massachusetts. It wasn’t the first, or even the strangest plan to build a global radio reflector. In 1945, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke suggested that Germany’s V2 rocket arsenal could be repurposed to deploy an array of antennas into geostationary orbit around the Earth. So prescient was Clarke’s vision, today’s communications satellites, residing at these fixed points above the planet, are said to reside in “Clarke Orbit”.

Meanwhile, American scientists had been attempting to use our own moon as a communications relay, a feat that would finally be accomplished with 1946’s Project Diana. An even more audacious scheme was hatched in the early 1960s from a shiny Mylar egg known as Project Echo, which utilized a pair of microwave reflectors in the form of space-borne metallic balloons.

Size of the copper needles dispersed as part of Project West Ford. (NASA)

As Project West Ford progressed through development, radio astronomers raised alarm at the ill effects this cloud of metal could have on their ability to survey the stars. Concerns were beginning to arise about the problem of space junk. But beneath these worries was an undercurrent of frustration that a space mission under the banner of national security was not subject to the same transparency as public efforts.

The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences convened a series of classified discussions to address astronomers’ worries, and President Kennedy attempted a compromise in 1961. The White House ensured that West Ford’s needles would be placed in a low orbit, the wires would likely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within two years, and no further tests would be conducted until the results of the first were fully evaluated. This partially appeased the international astronomy community, but still, no one could guarantee precisely what would happen to twenty kilograms of copper wire dispersed into orbit.

The West Ford dispersal system. (NASA)

On October 21, 1961, NASA launched the first batch of West Ford dipoles into space. A day later, this first payload had failed to deploy from the spacecraft, and its ultimate fate was never completely determined.

“U.S.A. Dirties Space” read a headline in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. 

Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was forced to make a statement before the UN declaring that the U.S. would consult more closely with international scientists before attempting another launch. Many remained unsatisfied. Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle went so far as to accuse the U.S. of undertaking a military project under “a façade of respectability,” referring to West Ford as an “intellectual crime.”

On May 9, 1963, a second West Ford launch successfully dispersed its spindly cargo approximately 3,500 kilometers above the Earth, along an orbit that crossed the North and South Pole. Voice transmissions were successfully relayed between California and Massachusetts, and the technical aspects of the experiment were declared a success. As the dipole needles continued to disperse, the transmissions fell off considerably, although the experiment proved the strategy could work in principle.

Concern about the clandestine and military nature of West Ford continued following this second launch. On May 24 of that year, the  The Harvard Crimson quoted British radio astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell as saying, “The damage lies not with this experiment alone, but with the attitude of mind which makes it possible without international agreement and safeguards.”

Recent military operations in space had given the U.S. a reckless reputation, especially following 1962’s high-altitude nuclear test Starfish Prime. This famously bad idea dispersed radiation across the globe, spawning tropical auroras and delivering a debilitating electromagnetic pulse to Hawaiian cities.

The ultimate fate of the West Ford needles is also surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty. Because the copper wires were so light, project leaders assumed that they would re-enter the atmosphere within several years, pushed Earthward by solar wind. Most of the needles from the failed 1961 and successful 1963 launch likely met this fate. Many now lie beneath snow at the poles.

But not all the needles returned to Earth. Thanks to a design flaw, it’s possible that several hundred, perhaps thousands of clusters of clumped needles still reside in orbit around Earth, along with the spacecraft that carried them.

The copper needles were embedded in a naphthalene gel designed to evaporate quickly once it reached the vacuum of space, dispersing the needles in a thin cloud. But this design allowed metal-on-metal contact, which, in a vacuum, can weld fragments into larger clumps.

In 2001, the European Space Agency published a report that analyzed the fate of needle clusters from the two West Ford payloads. Unlike the lone needles, these chains and clumps have the potential to remain in orbit for several decades, and NORAD space debris databases list several dozen still aloft from the 1963 mission. But the ESA report suggests that, because the 1961 payload failed to disperse, thousands more clusters could have been deployed, and several may be too small to track.

Active communication satellites quickly made projects like West Ford obsolete, and no more needles were launched after 1963. Telstar, the first modern communications satellite, was launched in 1962, beaming television signals across the Atlantic for two hours a day.

In Earth’s catalog of space junk, West Ford’s bits of copper make up only a fraction of the total debris cloud that circles the Earth. But they surely have one of the strangest stories.

The scheme serves as yet another reminder that it was military might that brought the first space missions to bear, for better and worse. Like moon bases and men on Mars, it’s another long-lost dream born at a time when nothing was out of reach. Even putting a ring around the Earth.

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