23 January 2009

Adventures In History, II

[Where was I? Oh, right, sitting in the waiting room of the Lupine's clinic, run, as near as I can tell, by Molasses-in-January Medical, scribbling down notes about the prehistory of the Hidden Frontier. That's the problem with blogging after the fact -- you lose sync].

As the Sgt. Snodgrass Incident made clear, there were serious navigation and piloting issues, especially near any other mass. Jumps certain (or nearly so) to arrive in open space or atmosphere were safe enough; but close-in, there were often anomalies and even when there weren't, the problem of getting a short enough Drive pulse, on the proper vector, was nearly insurmountable. Very early inertial navigation equipment was an obvious answer, but still too crude. The precise control needed for close-in maneuvering and landing remained elusive. Human reactions couldn't do the job.

For longer "flights," the obvious answer was to work out every step well in advance and automate the process. IBM' s SSEC went online in '48 and by 1950, was producing "jump presets" on the same heavy-duty punched tape used in SSEC's Table Lookup Unit; sadly enough for Snodgrass, the accuracy of the system was not all that great.

In June, 1950, it suddenly became clear to Outer Hebrides Agronomy Project management that time was running out; as Korea burst into war, something had to be done and if not an atom-bomb base on the Moon, then what? At news conference that November, President Truman mentioned using atomic weapons in the conflict, at which point even OHAP's DoD bosses began to feel the urgency for faster results.

Meanwhile, the flight-testing program had attracted unwanted attention -- reports of the vehicles jinking around madly, colored lights in the sky and so on had started something of a fad and not even major disinformation efforts by various three-letter agencies and Service branches were keeping it entirely contained. A heavy schedule of flights -- for instance, what would be required to build and supply a Lunar base -- was risky; control and navigation issues on landing made it essentially impossible. And power plant problems appeared to seal the deal; the massive energy demands of the Drive could not be sustained by battery banks. From great pressure, however, arises great results (or massive failure).

The solutions to most of these well-nigh insurmountable opportunities was just around the corner. In early '51, Sperry-Rand's Univac 1, smaller and lighter than IBM's SSEC, hit the market, followed in a year by IBM's own 701. In December, '51, the small atomic powerplant at Arco, Idaho came on-line, with Pentagon rumors of a battleship-ready reactor to follow. As these pieces came together, first on paper and then as working models, it appeared the vehicle would do everything "flying saucers" supposedly could -- except land. Or navigate accurately near a large mass, which comes to the same thing but has other implications, too. As you will learn.

[to be continued]