Saturday, March 12, 2005
Where has our awe gone?
I know this is a few days late, but it got back up behind work on other stuff... On Thursday afternoon, 3/3/2005, something incredible happened. It went by with pretty minimal notice. Steve Fossett flew around the world, unrefueled, and alone in 67 hours, 38 minutes, and some seconds. I was at work, and had been checking the news sources, and while there was a live feed on the web at www.globalflyer.com, there was so much demand on the servers that it was like watching grass grow. I turned on the idiot box. Seeing as how I’m on the east coast of the US, that was prime Soap Opera time. As I surfed back and forth thru the local channels (no cable at work), I eagerly awaited coverage of at least the landing. One station, channel 8, interrupted the soaps to show the landing and make a coherent, yet brief statement of the event being successfully completed. Friday morning, 3/4/2005, and the news organizations of the world had an had a second opportunity. The headlines on the Tampa Tribune highlighted the release of Martha Stewart and the upcoming testimony in the Michael Jackson trial. I’m sorry, but I think they missed something, or maybe I’m being too sensitive. How about this: “Christopher Columbus returned today, having made a major discovery of new island full of wealth. Details at 11! Back to your soap opera in progress.” Discovery. Conquest of the seemingly impossible/unreachable. Ho, hum….what’s for dinner, honey? How have we arrived at a point where a major feat of years of brilliant research, trial and error and blood, sweat and tears, is looked upon as something barely worth a mention on the major news outlets? Maybe I know the answer, and since I object to it (I’d say I’m offended, but I’m a white male, and therefore unoffendable for the sins of those before me who were also white and male), we focus on the things we desire, kind of like when you buy a gift, but you really get something you like. We’d like to be rich and famous, and the lure of that is tantalized by the reality shows, and the soap operas, and gluing our sights on celebrities. I think back to 1969, as Apollo 11 headed for the moon. For several days, most people were following that story in detail. As a nation, we watched anxiously while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Their return was greeted with a ticker tape parade, but that was a different time. Before home computers, before instant access to anything to make us feel good. As with all discoverers, adventurers and voyagers, their efforts lead to things we all benefit from. Lewis and Clark opened the west. Jacque Cousteau made the way for the sport of SCUBA diving. The space programs of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo gave us personal computers, light weight alloys and major advances in geriatric medical care and understanding. I heard it said years ago that for every dollar spent on the Apollo program, we derived $8 in economic benefit. The technologies used in that program, to get to the Moon have become prolific and interwoven into much of our every day lives, and we still have yet to realize the benefit of some things, most notably the hydrogen fuel cell, which may soon power our cars, and help us toss of the mantle of oil dependence. While flying around the world may not sound like much, it required the construction of a vehicle that had the “legs” to make it. The Global Flyer has one engine. This engine had to be reliable, as there wasn’t a “redundant” capability for the pilot to rely upon. It has only been recently that FAA certified twin engine aircraft for long haul transoceanic commercial flight. Prior to this, 3 or 4 engines were required. This engine also had to be tremendously fuel efficient. Jet fuel weighs about 7 pounds to the gallon, so you also have to have a single engine that has the capability to lift the weight of the aircraft and the fuel off the ground and to altitudes of 40+ thousand feet, plus its own weight. A high “thrust to weight” ratio was required. Light weight materials, of considerable strength were required to ease the strain on the engine. On top of all of this, the pilot had to have certain life support systems, and I’m sure they were pretty austere, as a result of the weight calculations. So what does this all mean? The “proof of concept” was just done on highly efficient, highly reliable jet engines, and lightweight, composite materials. These proven concepts will now have a better chance of adoption in the aircraft industry, which means less fuel consumption. Less fuel consumption means less pollution. Maybe if we’re lucky, it will actually mean lower ticket prices, as commercial travel rolls these materials and equipment into their airframes. The innovative work will eventually find it's way into other sectors, possibly the autombile market, and others, the technology, or the mixing of a combination of technical ideas/equipment must have some applicability elsewhere. I’d venture to guess that the team of Burt Rutan, teamed with the efforts of Richard Branson’s money and Steve Fossett’s piloting skills have done much more for mankind than Martha Stewart could hope to do in 200 lifetimes. We missed a chance to take this in. And while I’m on the topic, I think we should get the President to put Burt Rutan in charge of becoming oil-independent. If he can score two major break throughs in a few years, getting into space commercially and building two places that can circumnavigate the plant, I bet he could come up with a team who would take us into a new age of energy consumption.