[Ken Shirriff]’s analysis of a fascinating high-tech paperweight created by GE at the height of the space race is as informative as it is fun to look at. This device was created to show off GE’s thin-film electronics technology, and while it’s attractive enough on its own, there’s an added feature: as soon as the paperweight is picked up, it begins emitting a satellite-like rhythmic beep. It is very well-made, and was doubtlessly an impressive novelty for its time. As usual, [Ken] dives into what exactly makes it tick, and shares important history along the way.
In the clear area of the paperweight is a thin-film circuit, accompanied by a model of an early satellite. The module implements a flip-flop, and the flat conductors connect it to some additional components inside the compartment on the left, which contains a power supply and the necessary parts to create the beeps when it is picked up.
Thin-film electronics reduced the need for individual components by depositing material onto a substrate to form things like resistors and capacitors. The resulting weight and space savings could be considerable, and close-ups of the thin film module sure look like a precursor to integrated circuits. The inside of the left compartment contains a tilt switch, a battery, a vintage earphone acting as a small speaker, and a small block of components connected to the thin-film module. This block contains two oscillators made with unijunction transistors (UJTs); one to create the beep, and one to control each beep’s duration. The construction and overall design of the device is easily recognizable, although some of the parts are now obsolete.
If you’d like a bit more detail on exactly how this device worked, including circuit diagrams and historical context, be sure to click that first link, and pay attention to the notes and references at the end. One other thing that’s clear is that functional electronics embedded in clear plastic shapes simply never go out of style.
If you were born in the 1960s or early 1970s, the chances are that somewhere in your childhood ambitions lay a desire to be an astronaut or cosmonaut. Once Yuri Gagarin had circled the Earth and Neil Armstrong had walked upon the Moon, millions of kids imagined that they too would one day climb into a space capsule and join that elite band of intrepid explorers. Anything seems possible when you are a five-year-old, but of course the reality remains that only the very fewest of us ever made it to space.
Did You Once Dream Of The Stars?
The picture may be a little different for the youth of a few decades later though, did kids in the ’90s dream of the stars? Probably not. So what changed as Shuttle and Mir crews were passing overhead?
The answer is that the Space Race between the USA and Soviet Union which had dominated extra-terrestrial exploration from the 1950s to the ’70s had by then cooled down, and impressive though the building of the International Space Station was, it lacked the ability to electrify the public in the way that Sputnik, Vostok, or Apollo had. It was immensely cool to people like us, but the general public were distracted by other things and their political leaders were no longer ready to approve money-no-object budgets. We’d done space, and aside from the occasional bright spot in the form of space telescopes or rovers trundling across Mars, that was it. The hit TV comedy series The Big Bang Theory even had a storyline that found comedy in one of its characters serving on a mission to the ISS and being completely ignored on his return.
A few years ago a Chinese friend at my then-hackerspace was genuinely surprised that I knew the name of Yang Liwei, the Shenzhou 5 astronaut and the first person launched by his country into space. He’s a national hero in China but not so much on the rainy edge of Europe, where the Chinese space programme for all its progress at the time about a decade after Yang’s mission had yet to make a splash beyond a few space watchers and enthusiasts in hackerspaces. But this might be beginning to change.
Mars may not be the kind of place to raise your kids, but chances are that one day [Elton John]’s famous lyrics will be wrong about there being no one there to raise them. For now, however, we have probes, orbiters, and landers. Mars missions are going strong this year, with three nations about to launch their rockets towards the Red Planet: the United States sending their Perseverance rover, China’s Tianwen-1 mission, and the United Arab Emirates sending their Hope orbiter.
As all of this is planned to happen still within the month of July, it almost gives the impression of a new era of wild space races where everyone tries to be first. Sure, some egos will certainly be boosted here, but the reason for this increased run within such a short time frame has a simple explanation: Mars will be right around the corner later this year — relatively speaking — providing an ideal opportunity to travel there right now.
In fact, this year is as good as it gets for quite a while. The next time the circumstances will be (almost) as favorable as this year is going to be in 2033, so it’s understandable that space agencies are eager to not miss out on this chance. Not that Mars missions couldn’t be accomplished in the next 13 years — after all, several endeavors are already in the wings for 2022, including the delayed Rosalind Franklin rover launch. It’s just that the circumstances won’t be as ideal.
But what exactly does that mean, and why is that? What makes July 2020 so special? And what’s everyone doing up there anyway? Well, let’s find out!
After the end of the Second World War the United States and the Soviet Union started working feverishly to perfect the rocket technology that the Germans developed for the V-2 program. This launched the Space Race, which thankfully for everyone involved, ended with boot prints on the Moon instead of craters in Moscow and DC. Since then, global tensions have eased considerably. Today people wait for rocket launches with excitement rather than fear.
That being said, it would be naive to think that the military isn’t still interested in pushing the state-of-the-art forward. Even in times of relative peace, there’s a need for defensive weapons and reconnaissance. Which is exactly why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been soliciting companies to develop a small and inexpensive launch vehicle that can put lightweight payloads into Earth orbit on very short notice. After all, you never know when a precisely placed spy satellite can make the difference between a simple misunderstanding and all-out nuclear war.
More than 50 companies originally took up DARPA’s “Launch Challenge”, but only a handful made it through to the final selection. Virgin Orbit entered their air-launched booster into the competition, but ended up dropping out of contention to focus on getting ready for commercial operations. Vector Launch entered their sleek 12 meter long rocket into the competition, but despite a successful sub-orbital test flight of the booster, the company ended up going bankrupt at the end of 2019. In the end, the field was whittled down to just a single competitor: a relatively unknown Silicon Valley company named Astra.
Should the company accomplish all of the goals outlined by DARPA, including launching two rockets in quick succession from different launch pads, Astra stands to win a total of $12 million; money which will no doubt help the company get their booster ready to enter commercial service. Rumored to be one of the cheapest orbital rockets ever built and small enough to fit inside of a shipping container, it should prove to be an interesting addition to the highly competitive “smallsat” launcher market.
Ever since humans came up with the bright idea to explore parts of the Earth which were significantly less hospitable to human life than the plains of Africa where humankind evolved, there’s been a constant pressure to better protect ourselves against the elements to keep our bodies comfortable. Those first tests of a new frontier required little more than a warm set of clothes. Over the course of millennia, challenging those frontiers became more and more difficult. In the modern age we set our sights on altitude and space, where a warm set of clothes won’t do much to protect you.
With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the heating up of the space race between the US and USSR, many firsts had to be accomplished with minimal time for testing and refinement. From developing 1945’s then state-of-the-art V-2 sounding rockets into something capable of launching people to the moon and beyond, to finding out what would be required to keep people alive in Earth orbit and on the Moon. Let’s take a look at what was required to make this technological marvel happen, and develop the Portable Life Support System — an essential component of those space suits that kept astronauts so comfortable they were able to crack jokes while standing on the surface of the Moon.
In the fall of 1957, it seemed as though the United States’ space program would never get off the ground. The USSR had launched Sputnik in October, and this cemented their place in history as the first nation in space. If that weren’t bad enough, they put Sputnik 2 into orbit a month later.
By Christmas, things looked even worse. The US had twice tried to launch Navy-designed Vanguard rockets, and both were spectacular failures. It was time to use their ace in the hole: the Redstone rocket, a direct descendant of the V-2s designed during WWII. The only problem was the propellant. It would never get the payload into orbit as-is.
The US Army awarded a contract to North American Aviation (NAA) to find a propellant that would do the job. But there was a catch: it was too late to make any changes to the engine’s design, so they had to work with big limitations. Oh, and the Army needed it two days before yesterday.
The Army sent a Colonel to NAA to deliver the contract, and to personally insist that they put their very best man on the job. And they did. What the Army didn’t count on was that NAA’s best man was actually a woman with no college degree.
As the prospects for Germany during the Second World War began to look increasingly grim, the Nazi war machine largely pinned their hopes on a number of high-tech “superweapons” they had in development. Ranging from upgraded versions of their already devastatingly effective U-Boats to tanks large enough to rival small ships, the projects ran the gamut from practical to fanciful. After the fall of Berlin there was a mad scramble by the Allied forces to get into what was left of Germany’s secretive development facilities, with each country hoping to recover as much of this revolutionary technology for themselves as possible.
One of the most coveted prizes was the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket. Better known to the Allies as the V-2, it was the world’s first liquid fueled guided ballistic missile and the first man-made object to reach space. Most of this technology, and a large number of the engineers who designed it, ended up in the hands of the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. This influx of practical rocketry experience helped kick start the US space program, and its influence could be seen all the way up to the Apollo program. The Soviet Union also captured V-2 hardware and production facilities, which subsequently influenced the design of their early rocket designs as well. In many ways, the V-2 rocket was the spark that started the Space Race between the two countries.
With the United States and Soviet Union taking the majority of V-2 hardware and personnel, little was left for the British. Accordingly their program, known as Operation Backfire, ended up being much smaller in scope. Rather than trying to bring V-2 hardware back to Britain, they decided to learn as much as they could about it in Germany from the men who used it in combat. This study of the rocket and the soldiers who operated it remains the most detailed account of how the weapon functioned, and provides a fascinating look at the incredible effort Germany was willing to expend for just one of their “superweapons”.
In addition to a five volume written report on the V-2 rocket, the British Army Kinematograph Service produced “The German A.4 Rocket”, a 40 minute film which shows how a V-2 was assembled, transported, and ultimately launched. Though they are operating under the direction of the British government, the German soldiers appear in the film wearing their own uniforms, which gives the documentary a surreal feeling. It could easily be mistaken for actual wartime footage, but these rockets weren’t aimed at London. They were being fired to serve as a historical record of the birth of modern rocketry.