Thursday, September 24, 2020

Guest Post: American engineer Tom Dolan Dies in Car Crash

This post originally appeared at Today in Alternate History with input from Allen W. McDonnell. 

 In 1958, a young American engineer named Thomas Dolan was tragically killed in an automobile accident travelling to work at Vought Astronautics Division near Dallas. His vehicle turned over on the highway and caught fire. Dolan's charred body was barely recognizable and his priceless research papers reduced to ashes.

The incalculable loss to scientific research was that Dolan had recently conceived the experimental concept of a Lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) through which a smaller lunar lander might independently descend to the surface of the Moon. In all probability, he was wasting his time with this brilliant idea because of the mule-headed stubbornness of the development team director, Wernher von Braun. Even when he was proven totally wrong on judgement calls such as the four-inch flight, von Braun relied on emotional appeals to plead for more time, money or one last chance.

Even to his closest colleagues, it was clear that von Braun exercised an unhealthy control over the direction of the space program. His obsession with rocketry maintained a single-minded focus on the anachronistic concept of direct ascent via a single launch vehicle. A third lunar-landing alternative was Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR) to assemble, and possibly fuel, components of a translunar vehicle in low Earth orbit. By order of magnitude, LOR was costly, EOR was expensive, and Direct Ascent was mind bogglingly insanely expensive in comparison.

Due to these cost considerations, EOR was developed using piloted reusable first stages to save money. Still, NASA relied upon von Braun's advanced skills in political manipulation. He fueled the fears of politicians in Washington that the Soviets would win the race to the Moon. The NASA budget rose to an incredible 1.5 percent of total federal funding. Much of the new money was taken from defense, and plans to send military advisors to Vietnam quietly scrapped.

America fulfilled President Kennedy's pledge to land a Man on the Moon before the end of the sixties. For the piloted first stage developed for EOR the E-1 engine was selected for development and demonstrated its reliability for decades in reusable piloted stages. The Aerospike version first used in 1968 for the first manned lunar mission was designed to be efficient at a broad range of altitudes unlike earlier models that were optimized for efficiency at sea level altitude.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was obvious that the right choice had been made for the long-term strategy of space flight. This was because direct ascent was grossly expensive with very limited usefulness once the basic moon landing series was completed. LOR was less expensive if the only goal was a limited number of moon landings for political effect. However, EOR with reusable piloted first stage although initially more expensive to develop, was a future-proof technology for later programs. As a result, by the time that Von Braun died in summer 1977, the future of space platforms was clear. The journey from space stations to permanent bases on the Moon and other planets in the Solar System was well underway.

Author's Note:

In reality, Dolan proposed the first fully developed concept of Lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) but NASA officials initially considered the associated risks unacceptable. The Gemini missions proved them wrong, paving the way for his idea to be put into practice. For the NOVA and later Saturn V first stage, NASA selected the Rocketdyne F-1 rather than the E-1 model because of von Braun's desire for Direct Ascent.


Provine's Addendum:

As the Cold War ground on after the successful American lunar landing, space again became a major player as the Reagan administration was swept into office in 1980. Many blamed the Democratic party for the expansion of communism over southeast Asia with revolutions in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia following that in Vietnam. Central Asia seemed to be following, too, with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Reagan promised regaining the upper-hand, literally, in 1983 with a Strategic Defense Initiative including an orbital grid of anti-missile weapons. While labs across the country worked on R&D projects, budget-minded administrators sought more efficient means of launch. Ironically the spending escalated to the construction of a magnetic coilgun, which proved to be a good investment as the cost for individual payloads dwindled to a few hundred dollars per kilogram.

While the government budgets swelled, the Cold War ended in the '90s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and widening US-China relations. The Coilgun, built on the equatorial Jarvis Island isolated both for defense as well as Cold War secrecy, turned to civilian use. Communication satellites presented opportunities for hundreds of new cable television stations and satellite-linked telephones became the norm worldwide. With low start-up costs, numerous companies launched in the early 2000s with hopes of gold-mining on the Moon or founding the first permanent Martian city.

Friday, September 18, 2020

1118 – Songs prop up Liao Dynasty

In 1115, Song diplomats met with their counterparts in service of the Jurchen warlord Wanyan Aguda disguised as horse-traders. The Jurchen lived to the northeast of the realm of the Liao, a Khitan dynasty who had long been the rivals of the Songs in the south. The first Song emperor, Taizong, had attempted to invade the Liao to recapture the lost Sixteen Prefectures that once served as the northern frontier of imperial Chinese lands. Taizong’s invasion reached modern Beijing in 976, where he laid siege. The Liao managed to dig an extensive tunnel underneath the Song siege, reinforcing the city and ultimately drive the Song away. After more than a decade of warfare, the two finally brokered peace with the Song paying an annual tribute of more than three tons of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk. The proud Song describe the protection money as “gifts” rather than protection money to barbaric northerners.

A century later, the Jurchen rebelled against their Liao oppressors. Aguda established a new dynasty, the Jin, and looked to conquer the Liao utterly. As the region fell into war, the Liao struggled to meet the ferocity of the Jurchen, many of whom sought vengeance for humiliations of their families and women. Seeking to further break the Liao, the Song and Jurchen considered joining forces. After years of debate, however, the Song court under Huizong looked back on the previous defeat of the great Taizong. The Song were excellent organizers and manufacturers, but they did not seem to have the warrior’s lust for battle. Ultimately they refused the Jin offer and instead renegotiated with the Liao to send men and materiel for the war while ending their tribute.

The north continued as a warzone for decades, and the Song proved to be masterful in profiteering. The Songs had long been dedicated to producing, following the wisdom of Confucius on working hard and investing profits. During their reign, the population of China had doubled twice while rebuilding from the losses under the Tang dynasty. Much of the growth was thanks to expansion of high-yield rice crops and improved infrastructure. The Songs innovated as well, introducing woodblock printing, paper money backed by national banks, and gunpowder. Young men from across the empire took civil service examinations to test their worth under Confucian ideals, helping to create a powerful class of bureaucrats who sought to maximize the glory of the empire. Artists and merchants formed guilds while business drove expansion in manufacturing and mining.

Following the extensive war in the north, the nearly exhausted Liao drove many of the Jurchen westward, which caused a decades-long reorganization of the nomadic peoples living there. The Song finally had their own vengeance, retaking the Sixteen Prefectures by purchasing the land and encouraging the Liao to move northwest themselves with their new investment. Growing Mongol forces a century later struggled with the Jurchen and Liao, never quite organizing into empire themselves as the Song skillfully bribed competing tribes to work against each other.

The Song, meanwhile, became increasingly imperialistic. Invigorated by neo-Confucianism that blended universalist ideals of Buddhism, Song merchants reached farther than ever for new markets that could benefit from the products created at home while coffers swelled with profits in doing so. Confucian rationalism also borrowed from Daoism to understand the laws of nature, greatly expanding Chinese science in anatomy, physics, and chemistry. Iron smelting led to interest in hot coal-fires, which soon transitioned into steam-driven engines. Adapting paddle-wheel ships already created for naval engagements, Chinese merchants soon sailed even faster than the wind. It would still be centuries before steam-driven land vehicles followed the seaborne ones, but in time Chinese railroads would stretch to markets across continents.

China’s major rival for trade during its rapid growth was the Abbasid Caliphate, which from its capital Baghdad controlled routes leading to Europe and Africa as well as already having many inroads with Indian ports. Looking to avoid costly trade wars like the disputes that had risen in India and Indonesia where their spheres of influence overlapped, Chinese exploratory fleets of enormous ships some four hundred feet long headed eastward with hopes of sailing around the world to reach these western markets. Instead, they instead two new continents running nearly from pole to pole. Direct trade with Europe was stalled by nearly a century, but the Chinese did establish relations with the Inca and Aztec empires as well as founding new provinces around valuable mining centers.

By the twentieth century, China was the unquestioned master of the Pacific, although its position of world superpower could be challenged by the Ottomans whose empire reached from the Chinese frontier to the Atlantic and readily adapted Chinese technology. Although often antagonists, the two empires also work together, such as the express rail link from Casablanca to Kaifeng. Squabbling nations of Europe, meanwhile, manage their own corner of the northern Atlantic.



In reality, the Song made an alliance with the Jin to mutually attack the Liao and divide up their lands. Observing the Song struggle militarily in their invasion, the Jin broke the alliance in 1125 and marched southward. They conquered the capital and northern regions held by the Song, ending the Northern Song dynasty. The remaining Song reestablished their capital in the south and continued to rule until conquest by the Mongols founded the Yuan Dynasty.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Guest Post: Manila Devastated by the Eruption of Mount Pinatubo

This post originally appeared on Today in Alternate History.

By 1880, the strategically located port of Manila was the western hub of Spain's trans-Pacific trade. These rich benefits covered the high expense of maintaining the Spanish colony of the Philippines long after the independence of the viceroyalty of New Spain. This economic calculation changed overnight with the September 3, 1891, eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Luzon Volcanic Arc. After the catastrophe of this natural disaster, the islands were quietly abandoned to their fate, becoming a backwater by the outbreak of the war with the United States in 1898. Under the Treaty of Paris, they nominally entered US possession with the loss of the last remnants of the Spanish Empire.

Spared the volcanic eruption, the Philippines could well have become the prime American holding in Asia. Instead, America focused her attention elsewhere on the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. In one of the last acts of Herbert Hoover's regime, the Philippine islands were granted independence by the US Congress in the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act. At the time, the US was looking inwards in isolation, mired in the Great Depression and the resulting social unrest. One of the casualties of the era was Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur who was fired for his mishandling of the Bonus Army Protestors.

Meanwhile, the security situation in the Pacific was fast deteriorating. Chiang Kai-shek was sufficiently alarmed that he hired MacArthur as a consulting adviser to help re-organize the Chinese Nationalist Army. Ten years after Philippine independence, the forces of the Empire of Japan used the islands as a low-profile staging point for the invasion of French Indochina. The sparsely populated islands briefly became under Japanese control.

The much-admired five star General Dwight D. Eisenhower would mastermind a famous victory over Japan, working closely with the US Navy to drive through the Central Pacific. In the wake of World War Two, he would be elected President and guide Puerto Rico and Guam (incorporated into Hawaii due to its small population) towards statehood within the Union. In contrast, these positive developments would be overshadowed by the very poor management of the occupation of Japan, leading to a diplomatic coldness between the two and the push toward conservatism in the 1960s restoring earlier Japanese cultural aspects over American ideals like overt advertising and public displays of affection.

Nevertheless, the Pacific Rim slowly began to emerge as a key region in the global economy. There would even be a slow paced resurgence on the Philippine islands. Growth and expansion would eventually lead to the development of a small Christian republic on Luzon by the turn of the twenty-first century. Despite centuries of Catholic legacy, Protestantism would increasingly dominate by the millennium.

Wikipedia Note:

In reality, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines' Luzon Volcanic Arc was the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, behind only the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in Alaska. Today, Manila, alongside Mexico City and Madrid are considered the world's original set of Global Cities due to Manila's commercial networks being the first to traverse the Pacific Ocean.

 Provine's Addendum:

The precedent of religious separatism in the Republic of Luzon led to a "balkanization" of the region during the turbulent era of decolonization. Indonesia's many islands divided into modernist Islamic West Indonesia, traditional Islamic Java, Protestant Eastern Indonesia, Hindu Bali, and the twin Catholic nations of Flores and East Timor, which would later unify. Nearby Papua New Guinea divided into the Protestant south and Catholic north, nearly along the lines of the old British/German colonies. Many historians traced back the focus on religions for political division to the American efforts to study local culture in Vietnam after such struggles with the occupation of Japan, which prompted the CIA to pull support from Ngo Dinh Diem after he refused the plan for the smaller, more stable South Vietnam that remains today.

Site Meter