Friday, September 6, 2013

Missiles, Swords, and Plowshares

Years ago, when the boys were small, we took an impromptu road trip.  The journey was Eastward, towards Chincoteague, land of wild ponies, but this trip had another goal.  We piled into our minivan and went to the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, in what proved ultimately to be an unsuccessful effort to watch a rocket launch a satellite into orbit.

It scrubbed, lamentably, launching later in the week.  While the trip made for a beautiful viewing of a sunrise, that weren't whut we was there fer.  Fiddle.

I've still never, ever, ever seen a rocket launch, not once in my forty-plus years of existence.

My elementary school age kids are now both teenagers, and this afternoon, with a major launch scheduled for tonight, we're taking another swing at it.  We'll drive the almost four hours there, and then wait, and cross fingers, and drive the four hours back.  Road trip!

As of right now, the launch of the LADEE (that's pronounced like a Scotsman addressing a child) probe is still a go.  It's a car-sized probe, designed to measure the rarified but nonetheless present atmospheric conditions on the lunar surface.

So it's a rocket, and it's going to the moon.  This, I want to see.

Having researched the LADEE effort and the science behind it, I found myself wondering about the launch vehicle.  We 'Murkans have stumbled badly in our recent support for our space program.  In the absence of a Soviet Union to compete with, we've gotten fat and lazy, content to sit around and polish our gun collection while renting launch space from the Rooskies to get our stuff into orbit while we noodle around dreaming about past glories.

In the well-reported absence of a significant heavy lift vehicle, I found myself wondering just what we'd be using to heave the equivalent of a Chevy Spark out of the earth's gravity well and into lunar orbit.  An Atlas? A Delta?  I was reasonably certain those vehicles were no longer in use.

It's a Minotaur Five, as it turns out.  Standing a tick over ten stories high, the blunt-nosed and purposeful profile of the Minotaur is a familiar one.

Back when I was fourteen, splitting the difference between my son's ages, the Minotaur went by a different name.

Back in the 1980s, it was called the Peacekeeper.  Or the MX.

Its initial design purpose was to hurl a Multiple Impact Reentry Vehicle at the Soviet Union, meaning it was the rocketry equivalent of a thermonuclear scattergun.  Why hit a city with one nuclear weapon, when you can hit it with up to ten warheads at once, each one over ten times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, for a total yield of three megatons of explosive power?

The Cold War was such a delightful time.

During the massive and arguably insane weapons buildup during the Reagan years, we built just over a hundred Peacekeepers.  They were capable of delivering the destructive equivalent of ten thousand Hiroshimas, at a cost of $400 million.

That's four hundred million dollars per rocket.

And in 2005, we decommissioned all of them.  Fifty billion dollars worth of rockets.  Never used.  Thank God.

So rather than leave them just lying around, a few are being repurposed for the space program, the gleanings of what could have been a great harvest of destruction.

It's good they're being used, and for a different and far better purpose.  Those swords make far better plowshares.