Friday, 18 August 2017

How to deal with neo-nazis without becoming a violent fool

It looks like the American news cycle is going to give us another 3 and a half years that will include regular infusions of nazi-like people poking themselves into public life. It's obviously bad that they want to be racist and fascist, and it may or may not be useful that they're now exposed to the light of day, rather than festering away in secret. But one thing that's going to keep bugging me a lot, every time, are the well-meaning but badly misguided opponents of nazism who keep going on about punching them. This response is dumb, at best.

I am not the world's supreme authority on deconversion techniques, nor on conflict resolution, but I have had more than the average amount of undergraduate and postgraduate training in this sort of thing. It was one of the main things that got me interested enough in politics to get a degree in it, though I subsequently went in other directions. But I do definitely know just enough to recognise that the total amateurs calling for violent rage don't know what they're talking about at all. To highlight this point, note that by far the most common reference they are relying on is the Indiana Jones series of movies. I haven't counted yet, but I'm pretty sure that the fictional pedophile colonialist thief main character in those movies actually kills a lot more non-nazis than nazis. In fact, brutal violence is that fictional character's solution to most problems. So let's start by agreeing that this and all similar works of fiction are dumb role models for real 21st century behaviour. People who believe otherwise need to grow up, quickly.

Another popular gambit people seem to be relying on lately is saying that anyone who fought against Germany in World War 2 (or at least the British and Americans, in some perspectives I've been given) somehow proves that violence against nazis is good, great, wonderful. This argument is a smidge superior to the totally fictional Indiana Jones, I will concede, but it still lacks an astounding comprehension of how history actually happened. Even if you think soldiers are fighting for a good cause, they're still functionally only there to kill other people. Arguing that they were doing a good thing is tantamount to arguing that war is a good thing. And you know who argues that war is good? Nazis. They fucking loved war, and many of their current neo-nazi followers have a similar veneration of all things violent and military. You know who hated war? The average non-nazi. This is a massive topic we could digress into for years, but give Spike Milligan's war autobiographies a read sometime, or any of the hundreds of similar accounts, and see how a typical person in the middle of that mess felt about it all. War is entirely shit, there is no good side in it, no true good guys, and World War II in particular was an unusually brutal and wide-ranging slaughter on the largest scale humans have ever seen. It's not a period in history we should be aspiring to, because it is beneath us, not above us. Saying you want to beat people is the first step in the cycle of escalation to war that humans have witnessed a million times and never fully learned our lesson from.

There may, I will very cautiously concede, be scenarios in which an innocent person must be rescued and ad hoc violence (by that person or third parties) may be needed to improvise their rescue. But that is a world away from sitting in your underwear at home, cold-bloodedly typing into Facebook that you think we should all plan ahead for beating groups of other people, as a routine and default action, to make them do what we want. That kind of statement is the statement of a bad guy. Don't do that.

Now an interlude: This, experience tells me, is the point where I am accused of being a secret nazi sympathiser, or of not caring about their victims, or of being the unrealistic one for thinking anything short of total violence can work. I've even been accused, for the first time in my life, of being a "moderate". (I have burned a thousand bridges, with friends and strangers alike, over my strong political convictions. Accusing me of excessive moderacy is just an indication that one doesn't actually understand the words one is using and/or doesn't know me at all.)

So let me address these concerns, before spelling out a more constructive path.

I do not support nazis, racists, fascists, sexists, homophobes, or meat eaters, among others. These are all examples of deeply immoral choices, which all share the trait of personal enrichment as part of a privileged group at the expense of another, more vulnerable exploited group. Choosing to be one or more of those is a terrible mistake. But making that choice does not void a person's most basic human rights (which EVERYONE gets, even if they're a dick), it does not absolve the rest of us from our full set of moral duties, and it does not turn any human being into a mindless automaton who cannot or should not be reasoned with. Talking people out of their bigotry is hard. But beating it out of them is close to impossible AND it drags us down to their level. The reason we don't like bigots is that they try to force others to their will, often violently. There must be some pretty major cognitive dissonance to want to use the same method to make them stop that.

And of course, obviously, priority one should not be the comfort of nazis, but the wellbeing of their (intended or actual) victims. It's inaccurate and a little insulting to suggest that I don't have the well-being of these people at the front of my mind. So far, everyone who's accused me of this has been lily white English, with a bit of Afrikaans thrown in. These are not cultural heritages that are squeaky clean of abusing others, and they're not known for having been routinely badly abused themselves (except by each other, by coincidence). I've got my British ancestry. But I also have half my ancestors who were oppressed by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and when they came to South Africa, were also oppressed by the early apartheid laws, for about a generation. I have not personally been oppressed (I've been privileged my whole life, without question), but it's ridiculous to say that I'd willingly be on the side of the oppressors, knowing how my ancestors (and just as much, the much greater number of my non-relatives) starved and trudged and bled and suffered. My entire academic and professional career has been centered around making people's lives better, not worse. I definitely don't always get it right, but I'm still far ahead of literally supporting bigots (and possibly also ahead of the typical, neutral jobsworth who makes a fair living but isn't really in the helping others business, professionally). I'm very lucky to have paying work that is so constructive to society in general. (I've got a vague hunch that people in the arts & entertainment field are more prone to getting thin-skinned over this; I like artists, I don't think they're wasting their time, generally, but I can see that they might doubt their self-worth in unfair ways, and twist that into doubt of others.)

And finally, perhaps most crucially, we need to pick apart the idea that hitting people will change their minds more than anything else, especially rational discussion. Correction: That previous sentence should read "the really fucking dumb idea that hitting people will change their minds". And this is a big obstacle right there: How to convey to someone that they've embraced a very dumb idea, without alienating them, and pushing them into embracing it even tighter, rather than admit that they've made a mistake? Obviously, I should make clear, it doesn't help at all to tell them that they're dumb stupid idiot fools. Nobody responds well to that, and it usually isn't true anyway. Smart people make dumb choices; I've made plenty and I'm at least moderately intelligent. The more important thing is the ability to move beyond these mistakes.

At the same time, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that this is a really dumb idea. It used to be widely held, in some parts of the world, that pain and physical violence helped to encourage learning and good behaviour. But this was definitely totally wrong, and there's a good century or more of research pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Pain is bad for learning. Physical violence begets more physical violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Operant conditioning (like the electric shock training forced on the Project Mercury chimpanzees) gets some basic, coerced behaviour through the application of pain in the short-term (which is why it was sufficient for Project Mercury's very limited needs), but it's shit for actually teaching anyone anything on an intellectual level. Hitting people just doesn't work.

Interlude over. What does work? How do you teach people things they don't want to hear? As a teacher, I can summarise it for you this way: It takes a decade or more of stressful struggle and argument and pushing and discomfort, and it requires the application of many different techniques to achieve many separate parts of the whole desired result. If it were easy, I'd be out of a job, and this post would be totally unnecessary.

So I totally understand the desire for an easy quick fix. It's frustrating enough for me when I have to push algebra into a bored grade 9's head when they'd rather be playing games. And nobody's life is in immediate, urgent danger in my classroom, usually. But wanting a quick fix is not the same as actually having one available. Beating people is definitely not it. Pretending otherwise helps nothing.

So here's what you can actually do that'll be useful: Talk to people.

To be clear, this doesn't mean any of the following:
  • "Love them." Fuck that, don't abuse the concept of love in such a silly way, whether you mean it seriously or mockingly. You don't have to be full of flowers and little bunny toes to convince someone of the simple idea that it is wrong to oppress others. Arguably, you should naturally feel angry that you have to explain this at all. But one thing I've learned thoroughly from teaching is that losing your temper is a completely useless way of convincing anyone of anything, and nobody will buy fake expressions of "love" or other forms of sucking up either. Instead, do your best to be calm, neutral, but devoted to your better principles. You don't have to hate or love someone to explain something to them; you have to play a role that will get them to listen. If you can't do that, step away.
  • "Let them get away with their intolerance." I struggle to understand how people get stuck on this misunderstanding. We don't accept, for comparison, robbery, but we sane, normal people also don't accept that the police or private citizens should mow down suspected robbers with machine guns and chainsaws and no legal due process. There are options in between "nothing" and "murder", and it's my contention that people need to get more familiar with these more sane alternatives. If you're unwilling to accept that premeditated violence is not an ethical choice, then I say you should step away, and leave this to better people.
  • "It will be easy." As I've already spelled out above, changing people's convictions is far from easy. If you want quick, easy-feeling solutions, then this isn't something you should get involved in; step away.
  • "Let's sink hundreds of hours into angry, pointless online rants and arguments with faceless strangers." Not all talk is equally worthwhile. Focus on people you can engage with best, the precariously balanced fence-sitters, and don't try to rush the hardest challenges just to satisfy your own ego. Direct confrontation with hardcore true-believer neo-nazis is something best left to expert professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, diplomats, and other conflict resolution experts). The best most of us can do for people that deeply twisted is to help channel them towards professional help. Otherwise, it's reasonable to step away.
  • "Nazis don't deserve to suffer." Choices come with consequences, sure. And depending how you do the moral maths, you might even conclude that physical pain is a morally justified punishment for really shit choices, like nazism. My position is that I don't care much what they deserve, I care what the rest of us deserve. And I say that we all deserve to be the better people, who do not have to sink to their shitty level. And I say that we all deserve a solution that will actually work and make the world better; whether you like it or not, the evidence says that beating people in the street will not work. So I don't care if you're robbed of the (somewhat sadistic) chance to cause pain; its not important that you get that chance.
How much talking you can do, who you can talk to, and how useful you will be, are all difficult things for me to predict. Everyone is different, and there's some element of luck to this, because it's hard to know exactly when is best to confront someone. But remember this: Being bad at convincing people of things is not a moral failing, it does not make you a bad person. Just do your best, encourage your friends to do their best, and hopefully our combined efforts will add up to enough. On the other hand, I think it is a moral failing to want to harm others, as a first choice of default reaction to what we all agree is unacceptable behaviour. Telling everyone to rush out to beat people in the street probably does make you a bad person. And grabbing at the violent option, just to feel like you're doing anything at all, may be natural and understandable, but try to accept that it may actually make things worse.

People calling us to beat nazis worry me, but I am still pretty optimistic. They're asking for something stupid, but I don't think they're generally stupid people. They're calling for something bad, but I don't think most of them are bad people. We're all opposed to nazis because we all agree that what nazism wants to do to people is wrong; having a bad idea of how to counter nazism probably makes you a decent person with a bad idea, rather than a bad person. And ultimately, luckily, I don't think most people calling for this violence will ever actually do it. The ones I know best are nerdy, lazy cowards, shouting at social media because they feel powerless; they're very unlikely to form vigilante gangs and go roaming the streets, looking for fights. I don't think many of them would even really know where to look for their local neo-nazi group. But I do worry that their message will provoke others, elsewhere, to do stupid things. And I know they can all actually do the talking and convincing thing better than I can, if they put their minds to it.

Friday, 7 July 2017

There are no Starfleet marines, it's a very dumb idea

It's not too hard to see how the concept of a Starfleet Marine Corps might have been dreamed up by several fans over the decades. Star Trek's central exploration organisation, Starfleet, was originally presented with several superficial parallels with the real US Navy, because it was a convenient common reference point for American audiences and writers, steeped as they are in their militaristic culture. And from there, it's not a massively imaginative leap to propose other parallels, never seen on screen, like assuming that there'd also be Starfleet marines to match the US marines (who are officially a branch within the US Navy).

But this is a silly assumption. Those superficial similarities between Starfleet and the US Navy (little more than their rank structure and some basic procedural terminology) were never meant to imply that Starfleet was a military organisation, let alone an exact mirror of an older Earth military organisation. They're conceptually closer to NASA with phasers, not to a military force with warp drives.

But more importantly, there shouldn't even be any Starfleet Marine Corps, whether related to any historical military parallel or not. It would be such a massive misinterpretation of what Starfleet is for, and of what Star Trek is all about. I will now rant in a semi-structured way for several paragraphs to explain why.

First, at the broadest scale, Star Trek is about humanity being better than we used to be. War, violence, and organisations devoted purely to spreading these (a.k.a. militaries) are exactly the sorts of things the show has always presented as the horrible side of modern humans, which have been largely done away with in the future. In that sense, marines don't fit the tone or message of the franchise. If you like the optimism and hope and sense of mutual respect that most Star Trek tries to convey (i.e. if you're a real Trekkie who's actually watched the shows), then you shouldn't want it to be about people whose sole job is to kill.

Second, Starfleet isn't a military organisation. It has a partial, sporadic defence role, compared by Gene Roddenberry to the US Coast Guard's role, but that's secondary to its real goals of exploration and peaceful contact with the galaxy. In canon, there is a Starfleet Diplomatic Corps, as well as numerous science, engineering and medicine divisions. These aren't little side growths of the main thing, they are the main thing, and it's their personnel who populate starships and do the primary work of Starfleet. Similarly, the character of the United Federation of Planets, the state that operates Starfleet, is a peaceful, engaging and supportive one. The Federation wouldn't burden itself with a division (either under Starfleet or autonomous) who do nothing but kill.

It's true that there is a Security division within Starfleet, and they do often go lightly armed (by 23rd/24th century standards). But security officers are not soldiers, they're more like police. Their emphasis is on preventative measures and criminal investigations, with phasers set to stun. (They also have a long history of perishing first on away missions, mostly from things no space marine, nor anyone else without a full name, could survive either.)

We do see Starfleet Security growing larger and more dominant in the period leading up to the Dominion War, but this is presented as a dangerous aberration, not business as normal. DS9 was quite clear that we should fear and reject the militarisation of what ought to be simply a policing service, and reject the militarisation of society in general. The Federation suffers until it re-learns this lesson.

The Dominion War in general was not written and presented as an argument for staying heavily armed and aggressive. It was clearly an anti-war story, about how the Federation's failure to fully understand and engage with the new unknown (the Founders), and its resulting descent into fear of this unknown, could lead to runaway escalation, out of anyone's real control. It was a beautifully crafted mess, entirely believable, and ultimately still reinforcing the core principles of Star Trek idealism. Unfortunately, I notice a lot of fans didn't seem to take away much more from it than "Woo! Lots of ships! Pew pew pew!" This may be related to why some of them want there to be Starfleet marines too.

This is broadly true of any portrayal of war in Star Trek, but the Dominion War is easily the biggest and most compelling example. These wars are not failures of the concept of diplomacy, they are failures to enact diplomacy intelligently and with earnest vigour.

(And while I'm on that, but digressing, I'm baffled by people who think that Section 31 should be accepted as a functional, normal component of the Federation. DS9 explicitly and overtly shows them to be a malfunctioning cancer within the Federation, a hangover from more paranoid and irrational times. Their methods are unacceptable, and their self-selected goals are questionable at best. I can see how they make for exciting story-conflict, shaking up the stability and happiness of main characters. But so does a murderer; doesn't mean we should give them an official salary and a fancy uniform to do their murders in. Section 31 ought to be reviled and rejected by any competent Starfleet Academy graduate, and fans ought to be led to view the concept that way too. Partly, it bugs me that people misunderstand the character of the Federation badly enough to want to keep Section 31 in it, and partly it annoys me that people can't see that this would ruin Section  31's story potential anyway. They only work as interesting antagonists because they're not supposed to be there.)

Some have pointed me towards the MACO organisation, to suggest some sort of support for the concept of Starfleet Marines. But this is a terrible argument, in a few ways. First, the one thing the whole series of Enterprise managed to show quite consistently was how terrible things were in the bad old days before the Federation. 22nd century Earth is better off than we are now, but they still lack a lot of what eventually makes the Federation close to a proper utopia. United Earth was bad at working in space, and they made a lot of dumb mistakes, leading to some pretty big disasters, the Earth-Romulan War being their biggest. That series never got around to showing us exactly how that war unfolded; we just know it shook them up badly for over a century after, and pushed United Earth and its neighbours to enter into the United Federation of Planets. Avoiding another such war was a founding goal of the Federation. The smaller Earth-Xindi conflict that saw the introduction of MACOs to the series was a (somewhat badly written) analogy for the post-9/11 War on Terror, which younger readers may not realise was mostly a load of crap. It was a knee jerk reaction of mindless, unfocused violence, and the MACOs symbolise that exactly (though it's unclear if the writers consciously intended this).

Second, it is now explicit canon that MACO was fully disbanded with the foundation of the Federation, and viewed as unwanted and out of date. The failure of certain former MACOs to integrate into the new Federation Starfleet illustrates just how bad a fit they were for the new Federation era, even in the earliest years. The later centuries of the Federation would be far more alien to the MACO concept. I agree that MACO is a good analogue for a marine-type force, and this only serves to further show how poor a fit such marines are for the Federation.

I have a hypothesis that many of the fans who want there to be a Starfleet Marine Corps are less influenced by the series (except perhaps parts of Enterprise and the shooty pew pew scenes from later seasons of DS9), and are instead re-imagining Starfleet in their own heads, through the combined filter of random bits of Earth history, possibly some unrelated scifi series and movies (many of which feature fully militaristic space navies and some form of space soldiers or marines), and (most crucial of all, I would guess) the many Star Trek games.

Violence is generally more easily gamified than diplomacy or science, and a great many of the more recent Star Trek video and tabletop games have focused on ship combat or infantry combat. I might write up a full survey of this in future, but it shouldn't be too controversial to point out how many Star Trek games have nothing to do with the core activities of the series. And while I think these can still be fun enough games, and I play most of them myself, I think this confuses some fans about what Star Trek is actually trying to be about. I get the feeling that some people are a lot like General Trelane (retired); they like the shiny buttons and ceremonies of militaries, and they think the violence is just good fun. They don't want to acknowledge the harm of it all, and a few even get seriously hostile towards anyone trying to spoil their fun.

I'm especially annoyed at the existence of a marine division in the Trekkie organisation I belong to, STARFLEET International (SFI), which has its STARFLEET Marine Corps (SFMC). STARFLEET is a great fan organisation, I enjoy them, but SFMC is a very strange sort of parasite organisation. Since they have no canon basis for existing, they seem to attract a very separate membership set from the core SFI membership. I've been in multiple SFI chapters since 2012, both badly run and well run ones, and I've seen all sorts of people as members. And my informal assessment so far is that the kind of people who take SFMC seriously and want to participate in it are not interested in the nerdy, geeky science and politics sorts (like me) who participate in regular SFI. It might be some sort of left wing, right wing divide, now that I think of it, but I won't commit to that guess yet. But I digress. There seems to be no logical or canon reason for SFMC to exist, and no love for it from any regular SFI members I've spoken with. Yet it persists, and I think this is more about money than anything else. I suspect SFI would risk losing a huge chunk of membership fees if it cut off SFMC. And presumably SFMC gets a convenient facade of legitimacy and community from wearing the Star Trek and SFI labels. But it bugs the fuck out of me, and I wish they'd leave, or better still, "repent" and join the nicer side of Trek.

Star Trek is idealistic and optimistic and consciously non-violent, by design. The existence of phasers and photon torpedoes raise interesting questions about this ideal future, but they do not invalidate it, and neither do they validate the worst human impulses to band together to kill. The notion of a Starfleet Marine Corps is dumb, because it ignores all of the narrative, aspirational and inspirational conventions of Star Trek. Including marines would fundamentally spoil the stories being told, and they would spoil the social purpose of telling these stories. If you want to get together as a group and kill people, you clearly need to watch a lot more Star Trek.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Teacher's bits: Overview of the Space Race

My grade 9 history class is covering the Cold War this term, and one lesson needed to focus on the Space Race. This was a problem for me, because I simply have way too much of that inside my head. I love this stuff. I kept trying to think of ways to focus on only the key essentials, but I always slip into massive digressions that would easily fill a whole lesson on their own. Left unchecked, I'd happily discuss nothing else all year. And my grade 9s are especially chatty and unfocused, so they'd normally have a million questions, digressing totally off topic.

So, I needed to script an unusually tight lesson plan, forcing myself to stay on topic, with a set of pre-planned slides to illustrate what I was talking about, and specially asking the kids to write down any questions they had to ask me afterwards, rather than interrupting my flow. That's not my usual style at all, my normal teaching is very similar to my game mastering style (intentionally; it was the public speaking foundation I began with), with a very improvisation-friendly skeleton of key points to hit, however seems most appropriate to the audience of the moment. I've tried scripted, rehearsed lecturing before, and it didn't suit me very well. But for this topic, I felt I had no choice.

In practice, I felt it went fine. It wasn't nearly as deep as I would have enjoyed, but we weren't doing this for me.

So, for anyone else needing a lesson plan on the Space Race, here is my approx. 30 minute overview lesson, emphasizing the technological roots it had in World War II (the topic we covered in term 1), and mostly covering achievements in human spaceflight. I was especially glad I happen to have read Breaking the Chains of Gravity last year.

I've also freely thrown in a lot of technical names, especially of different rocket types, but that's not something the students need to worry about. Much more import is the general flow of broad trends and national goals.

Images are mostly taken from Wikipedia, though I've combined a few into collages.

(The format is slide image [click to embiggen], slide title as caption, and then the discussion points that go with that slide.)

Origin of rockets


  • Gunpowder rockets invented in 13th century China.
  • Used for centuries as entertainment and as a simple weapons.

Artillery example
  • After WW1, Treaty of Versailles included a specific rule against Germany owning any artillery guns.
  • Artillery was one of the most important types of weapons for killing at long distances (10+ kilometers; bombing Cresta from Concord).
  • But the Treaty of Versailles didn’t mention rockets at all, so the Nazi government hired a group of amateur rocket scientists to develop rocket artillery.
 
von Braun (suit)

  • Leader of the German rocket scientists was Wernher von Braun.
  • They were mostly interested in exploring space, but were happy to take the army’s money to build weapons instead.
V-2

  • In 1942, they finally had the V-2 rocket ready.
  • It could carry a bomb 300km away (more than halfway from Joburg to Durban).
Mittelwerk
  • Small number of scientists couldn’t make thousands of weapons needed for war, so concentration camp prisoners were used as slave labour to build V-2s.
  • Up 60 000 slaves worked in a hidden underground factory, called the Mittelwerk.
  • Around 9000 people were killed by V-2 attacks. 20 000 people died working at Mittelwerk.

first photo of Earth from space, 1946
  • V-2 was also the first human machine to go into space. A test launch in 1944 reached 176km above sea level.

Captured von Braun, Korolev, Bumper
  • During last months of WW2, Allies rushed to grab Nazi technological secrets, including von Braun’s scientists and rockets.
  • Von Braun chose to surrender most scientists to USA, moved there.
  • USSR only caught a few scientists, but got most of the rocket test facilities. Moved these to USSR.
  • USSR research headed by former political prisoner, Sergei Korolev
  • Both started trying to improve on German designs.


Basic rocket science jargon
[A technical interlude to clarify some very basic rocket science terms, without which, a lot of this discussion doesn't make much sense.]
  • Suborbital flight: Up, into space, and then down again. Relatively easy for smaller rockets.
  • Orbit: Go up, move sideways fast enough that you don’t come back down again. Much harder, needs much more powerful rockets.
  • V-2 could only do suborbital.
  • Rockets have at least two main parts to them: Launcher and payload.
  • Launcher is the flamey bit that moves the payload off the ground and into space.
  • Payload is the thing on top that will do the job you want it to do (could be bomb, communication satellite, observing (spy or science) satellite, crew capsule)
  • A human isn’t that heavy, but air, water, food, temperature control, radiation protection, control panels, seats, windows, etc., all add mass.
[Sub-interlude to explain why 1957 was an especially crucial year for spaceflight]
  • 1957 was declared the International Geophysical Year, when scientists from around the world would cooperate on major studies of the whole Earth. Leaders of the USA and USSR both saw this year as an important opportunity to get research satellites into orbit.
  • If the international community considered research satellites normal and legal, then it would be far easier to sneak some military spy satellites into orbit too.
Soviet headstart, Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2, Luna 1, Luna 2, Vostok 1
  •  Korolev developed V-2 technology into very powerful rocket called the R-7, much bigger than any Western rocket of the time.
  • R-7 could carry nuclear bombs hundreds of kilometers away.
  • Also powerful enough to put satellites in orbit. Science satellites could study the Earth and space, but could also be spy satellites to watch other countries’ militaries and find their secrets.
  • R-7 launched:
    • Oct 1957: Sputnik 1, first ever artificial satellite.
    • Nov 1957: Sputnik 2, first satellite to carry an animal, the dog Laika. Laika died within hours due to overheating.
    • 1959: Luna 1 and Luna 2, first successful probes to the Moon. Luna 1 flew past the Moon, Luna 2 was intentionally crashed into the surface of the Moon.
    • 12 April 1961: First human in space, Yuri Gagarin, on Vostok 1.
    • Several other “firsts”.
  • R-7s are still used today.
US headlines

  • Western reporting on Soviet launches was often ‘alarmist’ – very fearful, emphasizing lack of US ability to keep up, and implying huge risk of unstoppable Soviet nuclear attack, falling from the sky at any time.
  • Soviet media published less about their own setbacks.
US response, X-15, Mercury
  • US companies had already been working on spacecraft since von Braun and the V-2 were brought across, but American public and politicians suddenly demanded much faster results.
  • Research on the complicated X-15 rocket plane was largely ignored, in favour of the simpler, smaller, quicker to build Mercury capsule.
  • But early on, the US didn’t have a rocket powerful enough to put the Mercury capsule into orbit, so they just launched suborbitally on the weaker Redstone nuclear launcher, basically an enlarged V-2. The first US astronaut launched a month after Gagarin.
  • Even when they put Mercury capsules on bigger Atlas rockets the next year, and got Americans into orbit, it still wasn’t as much or as high as the Soviet R-7 could manage. Vostoks kept doing more than Mercuries could.
  • Americans remained fearful. President Kennedy declared the US would win the Space Race by putting humans on the Moon before 1970.
US progress, Gemini, Apollo-Saturn IB, Apollo-Saturn V
  • With the Moon target, US rockets and spacecraft kept getting bigger.
    • Mercury was upgraded to Gemini, and then the two-piece Apollo set.
    • Redstone and Atlas were replaced with the larger Titan II nuclear missile, and then the much larger Saturn IB. In the late 1960s, US launchers were finally bigger than the Soviet R-7.
  • For the Moon missions, Apollo needed the biggest launcher ever, the Saturn V.
  • Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon on 20 July 1969. 12 Americans on 6 Apollo missions until 1972, got to walk on the Moon.
  • ...and then US pretty much decided they had won the Space Race, and there was no longer any money to return humans to the Moon, let alone any deeper to Mars, Venus, or other planets.
Soviet N1, Salyut 6 station and a Soyuz
  • The Soviet Moon launcher, the N1, equivalent to the American Saturn V, was a failure. It crashed and exploded on every test launch. With no huge launcher, the Soviets couldn’t send any people to the Moon.
  • The new Soviet Soyuz spacecraft was also too unreliable for the first few years to be sent to the Moon (though it was later fixed and is still in use today).
  • Without the technology to reach the Moon, the USSR changed its goal from Moon landings to long-term space stations in Earth orbit. The first space station, Salyut 1, was occupied for 2 weeks in 1967. More space stations followed, and today’s International Space Station still uses some of the same components as the original Salyut stations.
  • Arguably, the sustained Soviet/Russian station operations have achieved more in the long run than the quicker US burst to reach the Moon and then stop.
ASTP, Mir, ISS
  • After the Moon Race ended, both sides felt less sense of competition, and were finally able cooperate. First ever international docking, in 1975, between Soyuz 19 and Apollo 18.
  • After the Cold War ended, cooperation increased, with US space shuttles visiting the Russian Mir station during the 1990s.
  • US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada cooperated in assembling the enormous structure of the International Space Station, starting in 1998.
Proposed Deep Space Gateway lunar station

  • Plans for international Moon station, Mars missions? 
Chinese, Indian 21st century spacecraft
  • Several other countries have developed launch capabilities (SA sub-orbital launches in 1989/1990), but the only other launches of humans so far are by China, starting with Shenzhou 5, in 2003.
  • USA refuses to do space missions with China, so China built its own stations.
  • India also has partly developed crew capsule that could carry people a few years from now.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Happy 50th, Soyuz!

23 April 1967, 50 years ago today, the first crewed Soyuz spacecraft launched. Three days ago, the latest crewed Soyuz spacecraft launched and docked with the ISS. We've been flying to space in this same design for a full 50 years now, and more of them have been built than any other type of spacecraft by a huge margin - it's the VW Beetle of human spaceflight. Uncrewed test launches of Soyuzes had begun in November 1966, so by that measure, Soyuz already passed its 50th anniversary last year. But I'm more inclined to measure crewed spacecraft by when they're actually inhabited in space.

The closest any other crewed spacecraft comes to that longevity is the DOS space station core module (reaching its 46th crew-carrying anniversary this June), which featured in most of the Salyut space stations and the Mir space station, and is currently part of the ISS. Soyuz and DOS were designed to work together, so it's appropriate but remarkable that they're still doing so today. You'll see in the visual history below how much the two vessel types have been connected.

By coincidence, today is also the 46th anniversary of Soyuz 10's unsuccessful docking attempt with Salyut 1, the first Soyuz-DOS meetup in orbit. Later this year we'll see the 60th anniversary of the R-7 family of rockets, the oldest orbital launcher there is, variants of which have launched all crewed Soyuzes and most uncrewed Soyuzes, plus all sorts of other things.

The longest serving US spacecraft, the Space Shuttle Orbiter, lasted 30 years, and the 5 of those that were built got into space 134 times, accruing a total spaceflight time of just under 1 331 days. Flying only once each, 132 Soyuzes have gotten their crews into space 132 times so far, adding up to 14 956 days of human spaceflight time, and counting. Nine more Soyuzes are scheduled to launch, keeping them in use until 2020. Adding in all the uncrewed Soyuz and Soyuz-variant launches more than doubles the number of times the Soyuz family has flown; there were no uncrewed Space Shuttle flights. So, it's not the simplest comparison.

The second most numerous spacecraft design was the Apollo CSM, of which a mere 15 were launched into space with humans on board.

And while the latest version of Soyuz is definitely modernised and digital, it's also still clearly very close to its original 1960s form; consider below the full evolution of the Soyuz:
(Click to embiggen.)
Top row: Crewed variants of Soyuz.
Bottom row, left group: Major uncrewed variants of Soyuz.
Bottom row, right group: Crewed variants of Tiangong.
(Image credit mostly goes to historicspacecraft.com, with a couple bits from elsewhere and/or modified by me.)

Note that I've included more than just the crewed versions. Soyuz has been around so long, it's been mutated into a few different forms - most import of all is undeniably the Progress cargo vessel. I've also included China's larger Tiangong spacecraft, which was intentionally based on the Soyuz layout, and operates in a very similar way. It is arguably part of the Soyuz family.

One weird thing going through all of the Soyuz missions brings up is how openly sexist the Soviet and Russian space programs have been. Hundreds of people have travelled on Soyuzes, but only 3 of them were Russian women (less than 1 per decade!), and no Soyuz has ever had a woman commander. There are plenty of stories floating about of nasty sexism in Soviet/Russian spaceflight, and they even chose to put it in some of their public relations videos. One case leapt out at me from the Soyuz TMA-11 near-disaster, discussed towards the end of this post. The Roscosmos general director at the time publicly blamed the fact that the vessel concerned had too many women onboard (one American, one South Korean), and said he'd work to prevent this from happening again. You don't joke about crap like that, but I suspect he wasn't kidding.

Because Soyuz has been around for so long, it's hard to discuss absolutely every flight and every crew. At the same time, one of its virtues has been how uneventful and routine most of its operations have become. I think the best way to celebrate this 50th anniversary is a simple visual history of some of the major Soyuz moments. Even condensed this way, it's still a lot.

1966-11-26 (no image available): Kosmos 133, the first uncrewed Soyuz test vehicle, launches. It malfunctioned in orbit and was intentionally destroyed before it could crash. Two further uncrewed test launches followed, both with serious systems failures.

1967-04-23: Soyuz 1 launches, with a single pilot, Vladimir Komarov. Space Race pressure had rushed a premature launch, and the flight was a complete disaster, with several technical failures forcing an early landing. But the parachute failed too, and Komarov simply fell straight from orbit to the ground, the first fatal spaceflight.
1968-10-30: Soyuz 3 lands safely, the first successful crewed Soyuz landing. Soyuz 3 had met up with the uncrewed Soyuz 2 in orbit, but failed to dock with it. Soyuz was the first Soviet spacecraft designed for orbital docking, so many of its early flights were focused around docking experiments.
1969-01-16: Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 dock in orbit, allowing the first crew transfer from one spacecraft to another, and therefore also the first time that cosmonauts had landed in a different vessel from the one they launched in. They had to spacewalk along the outside of the spacecraft to get from one to the other, as there was no internal hatch between the two yet.
1971-04-23: Soyuz 10 attempts to dock with Salyut 1, the first ever space station, but fails to completely do so. Then they had trouble getting completely loose from the station's docking equipment again, but eventually got home.
1971-06-30: Ground crews perform CPR on the already dead crew of Soyuz 11, shortly after it landed. Soyuz 11 successfully docked with Salyut 1, making it the first occupied space station in history. The crew of Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev spent 22 successful days working on the station, but after they undocked Soyuz 11 to go home again, their spacecraft began to rapidly depressurize, asphyxiating the crew in seconds. They are the only humans to have died in space, and while there have been further Soyuz accidents, this was the last fatal one.

1974-07-03: Soyuz 14 launches, docking with the Salyut 3 space station, probably the only crewed spacecraft to be armed.

1975-01-12: Soyuz 17 docks with the Salyut 4 space station for a month. A little over 3 months later, Soyuz 18 docks with Salyut 4 (pictured), making it the first Salyut to receive more than one crew. They were followed in November that year by Soyuz 20, which I believe was the only conventional* Soyuz ever with a fully non-human crew: Tortoises and fruit flies were kept inside as part of a biology research project, while the Soyuz was given a long-duration (90 day) engineering test by remote control. Since the non-human animals never entered Salyut 4, it's a matter of precise definition whether they were its 3rd group of visitors or not.

(*By conventional, I mean the Earth-orbit crew ferry sort of Soyuz, normally used by human crews. In 1968 there were two variant Soyuzes of the Zond lunar program that also carried non-human animals. Zond 5 successfully carried tortoises, wine flies and meal worms around the Moon and safely landed back on Earth. Zond 6 also flew around the Moon with similar passengers, but on return to Earth, it suddenly depressurized, killing everything inside, and then also suffered a prachute failure. If Zond 6 hadn't failed, and if Apollo 8 hadn't beaten them to it, the next Soyuz 7K-L1 might have been allowed to launch humans around the Moon. There may have been animals on one or more Progresses too, but I haven't dug that up yet.)

1975-04-05: The crew of what is now officially only called Soyuz 7K-T #39, but also variously known as Soyuz 18a, Soyuz 18-1, or the 5 April Anomaly, and what had orginally been launched as Soyuz 18 (for a few minutes, anyway). Due to a mechanical failure and subsequent launch abort, just after it reached space, this accidentally became the only crewed suborbital Soyuz launch. The re-entry module landed on a snowy slope and rolled down it for a while, but the crew survived.

1975-07-17: Soyuz 19 and Apollo 18 dock in orbit, the first international spacecraft docking. They didn't do much up there, but their long-term influence has been enormous.
1976-07-07: Soyuz 21 becomes first spacecraft to dock with the Salyut 5 space station. Soyuz 23 failed to become second to dock there, and on landing accidentally became trapped under the ice of Lake Tengiz, the only crewed Soyuz water landing. It took 9 cold hours to safely get the crew out. Soyuz 24 later made the actual second (and final) successful docking with Salyut 5.
1977-12-11: Following the failure of Soyuz 25 to dock with Salyut 6, Soyuz 26 becomes first to dock with the new space station. In total, 17 Soyuzes successfully docked with Salyut 6, as well as one more failed docking by Soyuz 33. Soyuz T-4 (pictured) was the last to undock from the station, on 1981-05-26. Salyut 6 was the first space station to allow multiple simultaneous dockings, so that Progress supply ships could make deliveries to crews, and multiple crews could board the station at the same time, without having to leave the station unoccupied. This was first demonstrated when Soyuz 27 arrived a week before Soyuz 26 departed. Salyut 6 was also notable for beginning the Interkosmos program of various international guest cosmonauts joining the Soyuz/Salyut crews on a regular basis.
1982-05-15: Soyuz T-5 is first to dock with the Salyut 7 space station. In total, 10 Soyuz spacecraft successfully docked with Salyut 7, with only Soyuz T-8 failing to. Salyut 7 had fewer Soyuzes visit it than Salyut 6, but longer visits meant that Salyut 7 lasted for longer than its predecessor. Soyuz T-14 is pictured docked to it here.
1983-09-26: People watch the critical escape of what is now officially only called Soyuz 7K-ST #16L, but also variously known as Soyuz T-10a or Soyuz T-10-1, and what had been 90 seconds short of launching as the original Soyuz T-10. This Soyuz was the only case of its launch escape system saving a crew, when the launch rocket exploded underneath it. The crew were flung away and landed unharmed, and their spacecraft's orbital module was even recycled for use on Soyuz T-15.
1986-03-13: Soyuz T-15 launches (with its recycled orbital module) and becomes first to dock with the Mir space station. They then left Mir's lights on, flew the Soyuz to Salyut 7 to dock with it for the final time, stole a bunch of useful equipment for Mir, and then flew their Soyuz back to dock with Mir again. This makes Soyuz T-15 the only spacecraft so far to fly back and forth between different space stations.
Following Soyuz T-15, another 29 Soyuzes visited Mir. During the same period, three of the US shuttles made 9 dockings with Mir, the first international dockings since 1975's Soyuz-Apollo meeting. Soyuz TM-30 was the last to undock from Mir, on 2000-06-15. Lots of interesting things happened on Mir, but the fact that there's not much more to add about Soyuz specifically is an indication of how reliable and routine Soyuz operations had become by this point.
2000-11-02: Soyuz TM-31 is the first Soyuz to dock with the International Space Station, carrying the crew known as Expedition 1. Three US shuttles had preceded it since December 1998, making 5 dockings before Soyuz TM-31 arrived. However, that Soyuz visit marks the start of the station's continuous occupation (over 16 years without being empty once), as shuttle visits could only be a couple weeks long before returning to Earth, while Soyuz had been made suitable over the Salyut/Mir years to remain docked at the station for 6 or 7 months at a time.
Today, 2017-04-23, there are two Soyuzes docked at the ISS (Soyuz MS-03 and Soyuz MS-04), and their combined crews are its Expedition 51. The three US shuttles visited the ISS 37 times altogether, while 50 Soyuzes have so far docked there, along with a whole lot of different uncrewed cargo vessels. Since the shuttles retired in 2011, Soyuz has been the only way to get people to and from the ISS (apart from making a deal with China to use Tiangongs, maybe). In the next few years, Crew Dragons and Starliners are due to start bringing crews there too, and possibly also Federatsias.
One worrying but luckily never disastrous malfunction struck both early and late Soyuzes in similar ways during their re-entries. Soyuz 5, back in 1969, and then both Soyuz TMA-10 and Soyuz TMA-11 in 2007/2008, all had their service modules fail to separate from their re-entry modules (step 3 in the diagram), causing them to fall uncontrolled, with their heat shields facing the wrong way. Happily, in all three cases, the heat of re-entry was enough to melt through the last connections to the service module, breaking it free in time for the re-entry module to swing back around to face the correct direction, before the weaker top end of the re-entry module also melted through. Crews suffered injuries and landed well off target, but survived.
Several Soyuz replacements have been proposed over the years, but it looks like Russia is finally really going to switch to a new spacecraft. The larger Federatsia spacecraft is not expected to carry humans until 2024, at the earliest, leaving a four year gap after the last Soyuz lands. Federatsia won't launch on a Soyuz rocket (nor any member of the R-7 rocket family), and it will launch from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia, rather than the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan that every crewed Soviet/Russian launch to date has started from, so it'll see a lot of changes beyond the spacecraft itself.
What strikes me in all of this is that Soyuz is almost never the hero of the story, especially when it's working properly. Early on, it's not really doing too much very groundbreaking, compared with the drama of the first few years of the Space Race, or the ostentatious Apollo Moon missions. Soyuz was originally conceived for Moon missions too, and then had that taken away. And later on, when Soyuz starts servicing space stations, the stations are most often the center of attention, not their little support craft. The little bit of limelight Soyuz has had since 2011 often comes from (or draws in) angry Americans, raging that they're now forced to hitch rides. They don't seem grateful that old Soyuz is still keeping things moving forwards. But that's the main accomplishment of Soyuz: In a series of tortoise-vs.-hare contests, it's been the sure and steady tortoise.