Oldest Human Fossils?

Humanity’s current model may be a whole lot older than we thought.

A team of scientists say that remains found in Morocco are human, Homo sapiens. The scientists also say these folks lived about 300,000 years ago.

They were around 100,000 years earlier and about 2,000 miles away from where we thought Homo sapiens showed up. If their identity and age is confirmed, we’ll be rewriting and rethinking our knowledge of humanity’s origins.

Other scientists say T. rex may not have been fluffy. It looks like the big dinosaur lost its feathers somewhere along the line.


Opportunities for Appreciation

I’m a Christian, a Catholic, so I accept that God is creating a good, orderly, and knowable world. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268, 279, 299, 301)

I’m also fascinated by (real) science.

Each time we learn something new about how this universe works, it’s a new opportunity to appreciate God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

I don’t see that as a problem.

Using the brains God gave us seems much more reasonable than fearing that we’ll awaken cosmic horrors, or ‘offend the spirits’ by showing an interest in God’s work. (December 16, 2016; July 15, 2016)

Because I’m a Christian, I see time as a characteristic of this universe, not an eternal constant; and basically linear.

I figure God could have created a static universe that started in a perfect state, and stays that way. But that’s not how our current home works. This universe is in a “state of journeying” toward perfection that we haven’t reached yet. (Catechism, 302)

This Universe as a Desktop Project

Like I said, I’m not worried that we’ll ‘learn too much.’

I’m also not concerned that I’ll go someplace where God can’t see or hear me.

This universe is a desktop project: from God’s viewpoint. That’s being very anthropomorphic.

Beautiful poetic imagery notwithstanding, God doesn’t sit on a throne at some particular place in this cosmos.

The Almighty, the I AM, is beyond this universe: and “here” in each place that can be, is, or has been; immediately present at all times, past, present and future. (Catechism, 300)

As a Christian, I take God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, very seriously.

That doesn’t keep me from realizing that everyone has wondered where we came from, what we’re doing, and where we’re going. Folks have come up with quite a few ideas. It’s part of being human. (Catechism, 285)

The natural human desire to know may be a reason Ussher worked out his timetable. What I’m not sure about is why so many folks still insist that the universe started at a particular day near the autumnal equinox in 4004 BC. (March 10, 2017; October 28, 2016)

Ussher’s chronology was pretty good scholarship, three and a half centuries back. But we’ve learned a great deal since then.

It Happened Earlier

‘It happened earlier’ seems like a recurring theme in our study of Earth’s past, and ours.

Ussher’s estimate of a few thousand years was topped in 1779, when the Comte du Buffon measured how fast a sphere cooled.

His estimate for Earth’s age was about 75,000 years.

About a century later, using different criteria, the 1st Baron Kelvin decided Earth could be anywhere from 20,000,000 to 400,000,000 years old.

The current estimate is 4,540,000,000 years, give or take 50,000,000. (March 10, 2017)

That hasn’t changed significantly in the last several years.

Most scientists were pretty sure that anatomically modern humans, folks who look pretty much like the current model, got started about 200,000 years back.

We’re learning that the number may be off by about 100,000 years. Folks who look like us may be a whole lot older.

There’s going to be lively debate about this, for good reason.

My guess is that we’ll need more evidence before the question gets resolved. But if we do have deeper roots, I won’t be surprised. We’ve been learning that quite a few things happened earlier than we thought.

Each time we do, it’s an opportunity for greater admiration of God’s work. Like I keep saying, God thinks big.


1. Origins: A New Chapter in Humanity’s Story


(From Philipp Gunz/MPI EVA Leipzig, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“A reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens skull based on scans of multiple original fossils”
(BBC News))

‘First of our kind’ found in Morocco
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (June 7, 2017)

The idea that modern people evolved in a single ‘cradle of humanity’ in East Africa some 200,000 years ago is no longer tenable, new research suggests.

“Fossils of five early humans have been found in North Africa that show Homo sapiens emerged at least 100,000 years earlier than previously recognised.

“It suggests that our species evolved all across the continent, the scientists involved say….”

Jebel Irhoud is our name for a place in Morocco, about 100 kilometers, 60 miles, West of Marrakesh.

Folks were mining baryte there in 1960. Baryte is an additive in drilling fluid, paint, and plastic; and has other uses.

Mining uncovered a silt-filled cave in 1960. Scientists found mammal fossils there in 1960s, including Hominids. That’s another name for great apes: critters like gibbons, gorillas, chimps — and us.

I could bristle with indignation that humans have anything to do with the stuff of this world. But that doesn’t make sense. Not to me. (March 10, 2017; November 18, 2016; September 23, 2016)

Studying the other remains let the scientists make a rough estimate of when when the cave filled with silt. Besides the Hominds, they found early versions of horses and cattle, gazelles, rhinos and predators.

Tools, Neanderthals, and Anthropometry

They found stone tools, too, like that set in the photo. Whoever made them used the Levallois technique.

Tools like that had been found mostly with Neanderthals at the time scientists started studying the Jebel Irhoud site.

We’re still quite sure that Neanderthals made this tools like these. But so did a lot of other folks. We’re not sure who developed them first.

Scientists are still discussing how the technique was standardized across much of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

I figure that whoever invented the tech either passed the skill along to others, who swapped how-to tips with their neighbors.

Or maybe the originals were export items, reverse-engineered elsewhere. Probably both. Folks travel, trade, share information, and study what others have done today.

I don’t see why folks who lived before us would act differently.

Anyway, Levallois tools were considered ‘Neanderthal’ tech back in the 1960s, so assuming that the remains were Neanderthal was reasonable.

They do look a bit like some Neanderthal remains.

But we’ve learned more about Neanderthals, humanity’s current model, and anthropometry, since then.

Folks living at Jebel Irhoud don’t look exactly like anyone living today. But they’ve got more in common with Homo sapiens than with the folks we call Neanderthals.1


2. Tweety Rex? Maybe Not


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“T. rex was one of the largest terrestrial carnivores of all time”
(BBC News)

Study casts doubt on the idea of ‘big fluffy T. rex’
Helen Briggs, BBC News (June 7, 2017)

Despite its ancestors having feathers, Tyrannosaurus rex most likely had scaly skin, according to fossil evidence.

“Researchers say the huge predator had scales much like modern reptiles rather than feathers or fluff.

“The dinosaur may have ditched its feathers because it no longer needed insulation when it reached gigantic proportions, they propose….”

Scientists studying critters like dinosaurs are like the blind men and an elephant. Different folks find different bits of the same reality, and — you know the story.

Based on evidence and inductive reasoning, they conclude that the elephant is like a wall, a fan, a tree, a snake, and a spear.

Each is right, sort of: and wrong. Also sort of. I figure the story shows that a small part of a greater reality is just that: a small part. It may be typical of the whole, or not.

Interestingly, I haven’t run across a retelling of that tale where the moral is that since the blind men don’t agree — the elephant doesn’t exist.

That would, I think, make about as much sense as some arguments against evolution. And that’s another topic. (May 19, 2017; May 5, 2017; March 31, 2017)

Facts and Chicken Feet

Dinosaurs with feathers isn’t a new idea, although it wasn’t generally accepted until recently. My notion of “recently,” that is.

Huxley noticed that Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx skeletons were alike in some ways. Folks found Archaeopteryx fossils with feather impressions in 1861.

Huxley said maybe Archaeopteryx, a bird, sort of, had evolved from a dinosaur.

Meanwhile, folks with religious objections to stuff we’ve been learning in the last few millennia were having conniptions over evolution. They probably still are.

I’ve heard outrage expressed over the idea that birds could be like dinosaurs.

But I’ve seen reconstructions of extinct theropod feet, and I’ve seen chicken feet. Aside from size, there’s not all that much difference.

Scientists apparently thought Huxley’s idea was interesting. But they didn’t “believe in” feathered dinosaurs. Not until they found more evidence.

I’m not a scientist, but as I’ve said: I don’t see a problem with using our brains. Even if I wasn’t interested in science, I’d have to take evidence, facts, seriously.

Faith, for me, means willingly and consciously embracing “the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

The whole truth, not just the bits I like. (May 21, 2017; May 7, 2017; March 10, 2017)

It helps, I think, that I enjoy learning new facts, and that’s yet another topic.

Tweet! Tweet! — SHRIEK!

By Emily Willoughby (2014)In 1931, scientists found Deinonychus fossils in Montana.

Barnum Brown, the team leader, dubbed the critter “Daptosaurus agilis,” and prepped the specimens for later extraction.

That didn’t happen. Scientists have priorities, like everyone else. The might-be-interesting lumps would have been a chore to work loose from the surrounding rock.

About three decades later, John Ostrom went fossil hunting in another part of Montana, finding more Deinonychus remains. He realized that Brown’s specimens were probably from the same sort of critter.

Cutting an excessively long story short, we’ve learned that Deinonychus was an 11-foot, 200-pound, feathered hunter. Think a nightmare version of roadrunners; with sharp teeth and sharper, oversize, claws.

Dinosaur Feathers?


(From RJPalmerArt, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(T. rex with feathers, and lips. Whether the critter had either is still debated.)

About T. rex, size, and feathers; we still don’t have a fossil that shows the whole critter and a clear impression of its hide. Many or most birds have scales and feathers. Maybe T. rex did, too.

Or maybe not. Critters have options for thermoregulation, regulating body temperature. Not that they decide to have feathers, fur, or whatever.

It’s not just animals. Some plants make their own heat. The Indian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, for example, stays 20 °Centigrade, 36 °Fahrenheit, when it’s flowering.

The plant gets heat by ‘burning’ starch stored in its roots, consuming oxygen at a rate on a par with a hummingbird in flight.2

Some animals, like elephants, don’t need much in the way of hair or feathers. Gigantothermy, being really big, isn’t insulation, quite; but volume increases faster than surface area.

Other critters change how much heat they gain or lose by changing behavior. Textbooks will give examples like a dogs panting or bears hibernating.

I see what humans do as a sort of behavioral temperature regulation. From that viewpoint, our habit of developing tech like cloth and HVAC is behavior: operating over long timescales. And that’s, you guessed it, yet again another topic. Topics.

More opportunities for greater appreciation:


1 What we’re learning about our story:

2 Dinosaurs, birds, and biology; more than you may need or want to know:

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Prayer Routine: Month Four

It’s about four months since I started a new daily prayer routine. (February 19, 2017)

I sometimes forget the morning set, but not often. Having a printout of both sets next to my keyboard helps.

The evening prayers are another matter. Happily, I remember the gist of what’s between the Lord’s prayer and “glory be.” That lets me catch up: if I remember before falling asleep, which doesn’t always happen.

Blame, Bogeymen, and Responsibility

Wailing, moaning, and calling myself a wretched sinner, is an option. So is blaming Satan or Vatican II.

Invoking other bogeymen, I could blame my parents, society’s conventions, folks who don’t like Vatican II, or social media.

I don’t think any of that makes sense.

For one thing, nobody forced me to forget. I’m pretty sure I did that on my own.

I’ve got free will. I can make reasonable decisions, or not. I’m also responsible for my actions. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1730, 1735, 17771781)

How much responsibility comes with each decision is another question. We’re learning that psychological and other glitches can and do sometimes get in the way of clear thinking, and that’s another topic.1 (Catechism, 1735)

Feeling that God is smiting me with forgetfulness because my prayers are routine? I think that’s as unreasonable as holding someone else accountable for my shortcomings.2

Instead, each time I realize I goofed — again — I do what I can to catch up.

If I don’t remember until the next day, or if catching up isn’t possible for another reason, I try to avoid forgetting the next time around.

It’s not that I don’t care, or think that prayer doesn’t matter.

I’m sure that prayer is important, and don’t like it when I forget. I’m also quite sure that God knows I’m human, and takes that into account.

Routine Prayer

Prayers are supposed to be routine: like prayer before meals and during Mass. (Catechism, 1342, 13451405, 2698)

Folks have told me that prayers shouldn’t be memorized, that prayer should always be spontaneous. They have a point.

Prayer can be spontaneous. (Catechism, 2629)

Maybe their emphasis on spontaneous prayer came from realizing that prayer should be more than an unthinking habit.

‘Prayer’ shouldn’t be sounds I make in particular circumstances, without paying attention to what the words mean. That sort of thing isn’t prayer. Not in the Catholic sense.

“…To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.41
(Catechism, 2111)

Reducing prayer to nothing more than ritual words and postures is a bad idea. so is seeing it as merely psychological activity, or an effort to make my mind blank. (Catechism, 2726)

Prayer is a gift of grace. It’s also something I can’t do unless I decide it’s worth the effort. (Catechism, 2725)

And prayer does take effort.

I must fight attitudes I’ve learned from “this present world” each time I pray: pitfalls dug when time did not exist. Regrettable habits and attitudes I’ve developed give me trouble, too.3 (Catechism, 391395, 27252728)

Happily, there’s help available.

I have, if I bother to look, an inventory of spiritual aids accumulated over two millennia of Christian experience, built on a much deeper foundation. (Catechism, 26852690)

Memorized prayers are in the mix, along with reminders that it’s not just the words.

Thinking about what the words mean is important. (Catechism, 2688)

Often Hard, Always Possible

Prayer is always possible. (Catechism, 2743)

Anyone who has tried forming a habit of prayer knows that it’s not always easy:

“…There was a moment when I nearly refused to accept. — Deliberately I took the Rosary and very slowly and without even meditating or thinking – I said it slowly and calmly. The moment passed — but the darkness is so dark, and the pain is so painful….”
(Letter to Bishop Lawrence Trevor Picachy (September 1962), as quoted in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (2009) by Brian Kolodiejchuk, 2009, p. 238; via Wikiquote)

I think memorized prayers help at times like that. A lot.

That’s good, because living as a Christian without prayer doesn’t work. Prayer makes sharing the love Jesus has for us possible. (Catechism, 27422745)

Sharing our Lord’s love isn’t easy, either, and that’s yet another topic.

Posts, related and not so much:


1 Some of my view on mental health:

2 Imagining that God has anger management issues isn’t new. We’ve had a “distorted image” of God ever since the first of us made a disastrous choice. (Catechism, 399)

3 More of my take on:

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GSLV, Rocket Lab: Looking Good

India’s ‘monster rocket,’ the GSLV Mark III, successfully put the GSAT-19E satellite in orbit this week.

BBC News called some coverage of ISRO’s launch “euphoric.”

That’s understandable. India is like America in the late 20th century, where spaceflight is involved: and is rapidly catching up. I’m not euphoric, quite, but I see what’s happening as very good news for everyone.

Rocket Lab’s Electron test launch wasn’t entirely successful. But the company thinks they can get the system working, and plan to start commercial launches later this year.


Rockets in Space: “Absurd?”

It’s true: someone actually opined that rockets won’t work in a vacuum.

An op-ed in The New York Times said that Robert H. Goddard “…does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react….”

That was in 1920. On July 17, 1969, one day after the Apollo 11 mission set out for Earth’s moon, The Times published a clarification:

“JULY 17, 1969: On Jan. 13, 1920, Topics of The Times, an editorial-page feature of The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in a vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows: ‘That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.’

“Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”
(“150th Anniversary: 1851-2001; The Facts That Got Away,” Tom Kuntz, The New York Times (November 14, 2001) (And see The New York Times/Robert Goddard, Wikisource.)

The Times had cause for concern in 1920, sort of.

Working under a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s Hodgkins Fund, Goddard had been developing a “multiple-charge rocket for exploring the unknown upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere.” We call them multistage rockets these days.

America’s national government runs the Smithsonian Institution, including the Hodgkins Fund. Since the Hodgkins Fund’s principle may not cover its administrative costs, The Times may have thought Goddard’s research was wasting tax dollars.

Thomas George Hodgkins

The Hodgkins Fund and Medal go back to 1893. By the time he died, Thomas George Hodgkins had given away his fortune: about a half-million dollars.

He was born in London, England, in 1803. His father was a gentleman “in reduced circumstances.” Trouble with a stepmother ended when he was 15.

That’s when he signed on as a crewman on a ship headed for Calcutta. Shipwreck, illness, and determination, left him alive but barefoot-poor in India.

Decades later, he was very far from poor; at least financially.

He had no family, no close relatives, and a vast fortune that he wouldn’t be needing when his life was over. Figuring he’d do a better job than some executor, he began giving his money to pubic institutions, including the Smithsonian.

By the time he died in 1892, he’d given away everything.

The Smithsonian got part of his fortune. The institution started awarding the Hodgkins medal, and part of the money, to encourage “important contributions to knowledge of the physical environment bearing upon the welfare of man.”

I don’t know if the fund is still active.1

Folks like Mr. Hodgkins and JacquesCosteau are among the reasons why I have no problem accepting what the Church says about private property. (January 22, 2017)

Knowledge and Rocket Engines

Back in 1920, someone knew enough physics to wonder how Newton’s third law of motion applied to rocket engines.

That’s good. Informed advice and speculation make sense.

Not realizing that a rocket’s exhaust has mass, not so much.

Or maybe “the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools” didn’t include facts about air density and pressure.

Generations taught by folks with that sort of education might help explain more recent articles like this:

In my youth, Goddard was mostly known for his groundbreaking development of liquid-fueled rocket engines.

That was and is very important technology, and probably easier to explain than his work with ‘multiple-charge rockets.’

A rocket’s efficiency matters, a lot, since lifting even a small payload into orbit takes a great deal of reaction mass: the stuff the rocket ‘pushes against.’

For most rockets today, the fuel is also the reaction mass. Burning fuel produces hot gas at high pressure.

The rocket engine ‘pushes against’ the hot gas it’s shooting out its nozzle. The faster the gas gets pushed out, the higher a rocket’s efficiency. The hotter the ‘fire,’ the more energy gets transferred to the gas, also boosting efficiency.

The Dawn spacecraft’s gridded ion thruster is much more efficient than chemical rocket engines. But that sort of engine’s thrust is very low, so they’re useful only after a payload’s lifted off a planet or moon.

Multistage rockets are more efficient, in terms of physics, since they drop parts of the vehicle that have used up their fuel, leaving the rest with a lighter load.

Economically, they’re far from ideal.

After the Shuttle missions ended, and before SpaceX started building reusable boost stages, getting something into orbit meant throwing vehicles away after one use.

Commercial air service wouldn’t work, if a company had to throw away each airplane after one flight.

We still don’t have practical single-stage-to-orbit, or STO, vehicles. As I recall, funding issues stopped development of the McDonnell Douglas DC-X.

Reaction Engine’s Skylon spaceplane is still in the research and development process, though. Even if they don’t succeed, I’m quite sure that others will.

Physics, Rockets, and Faith

The first interstellar probes may use rocket engines for propulsion: or not. There are some intriguing — and testable — ideas on the table. And that’s another topic.

All this talk about physics and rocket engines may seem odd in a ‘religious’ blog. Or maybe not, if you’ve read my stuff before.

As I’ve said before, and most likely will again, I’m a Catholic, so ignoring truth is not an option. Not if I’m going to take what I believe seriously.

Faith, the Catholic version, is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 142150)

That’s the whole truth: including what we learn by paying attention to this universe. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 283, 341, 2500)

Even if I felt like it, deciding that I don’t like truth we’ve found since some arbitrary date doesn’t seem prudent. Or humble, in the Catholic sense. (May 7, 2017; March 10, 2017; February 3, 2017)

If we’re doing both right, faith and science work together. Using the brains God gave us, studying this wonder-filled universe and using that knowledge, is part of being human. (Catechism, 39, 159, 282289, 341, 22932295)

What’s changed recently is how much we know about this universe: including the moon and stars mentioned in Psalms.

I see that as an opportunity for greater admiration of God’s work, not a threat to faith. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Space Flight and Psalms


(From NASA/Tracy Caldwell Dyson, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Self portrait: Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the ISS Cupola module, Expedition 24.)

“Manned space flight . . . has opened for us thus far only a tiny door for viewing the awesome reaches of space. Our outlook through this peephole at the vast mysteries of the universe only confirms our belief in its creator.”
(Wernher von Braun, cited in Awake! magazine (June 22, 1999), via Wikiquote)

“O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth! You have set your majesty above the heavens!

“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place –

“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?

“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:26)

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder’s craft.”
(Psalms 19:2)

4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

“For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.”
(Wisdom 11:2224)


1. India’s ‘Monster Rocket:’ Expanding Transportation Services


(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark III is the heaviest rocket ever made by India”
(BBC News))

India launches ‘monster’ rocket
(June 5, 2017)

India’s space agency has successfully launched its heaviest rocket.

“The 640-tonne rocket blasted off from a launching site off the Bay of Bengal in Sriharikota.

“As one website put it, ‘it’s been a big day for India’. The rocket will reduce the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) reliance on European vehicles to launch heavy satellites.

“The coverage of the launch has been euphoric, and often colourful, with websites comparing the rocket to the weight of 200 elephants, or five jumbo jets.…”

India’s first भूस्थिर उपग्रह प्रक्षेपण यान, geostationary satellite launch vehicle, the GSLV, combined components from the ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and a Glavcosmos third stage.

The vehicle’s first working mission launched ISRO’s GSAT-2 in 2003. Since then it’s been a workhorse vehicle, launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota. Most payloads have been communications satellites.

The GSLV Mk II’s schedule runs at least through 2020.

That’s when, if all goes well, India’s second Mars mission, Mangalyaan 2 and the ISRO/NASA NISAR (satellite) synthetic aperture radar Earth observer will launch.

Not at the same time. Those are two separate missions.

As an American, part of me is glad that the Saturn V is still the tallest and heaviest launch vehicle; and the most powerful, in terms of total impulse.

The last Saturn V launched in 1973. It’s not as much bigger than the rest as it was during the Apollo missions and Skylab, but it’s still a huge rocket.

I’d be astounded if it’s the biggest vehicle we ever build for Earth-to-space transport. We’re still in the very early days of spaceflight, and off-Earth exploration and development is no longer a governments-only game.

About America, India, and the Saturn V, like I said: I’m an American.

But I’m also human, so I’m glad that folks around the world are developing aerospace transportation systems and infrastructure we’ll use in coming centuries.

Aside from thinking that competition can keep folks from getting sloppy, having backups arguably makes sense.2

Besides, folks in my country engage in trade. More and wealthier potential trade partners and customers aren’t a threat. They’re opportunities. Particularly if my country’s national government doesn’t meddle with business deals, and that’s yet another topic.

A Snapshot From Space


(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Isro has been popular for sharing onboard footage from its missions”
(BBC News))

BBC News did a follow-up article, “‘Monster’ rocket ‘selfie’ delights India,” with examples of how folks in India have been reacting to their country’s GSLV Mark III.

They like it. A lot: “The triumph of ‘Baahubali’: Amazing ‘selfies’ from @ISRO rocket” and “Delightful @isro India’s Baahubali rocket….”

I can see why folks call India’s launch vehicle a Bahubali. He’s a legendary figure for Jains. His name means “One With Strong Arms” in my language: or Armstrong, given our habit of compressing phrases.

The experimental LVM-3/CARE Mission in 2014 carried India’s Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment.

Both the GSLV Mark III and experimental crew module both worked fine. The module went through its test of yaw, pitch, and roll, attitude control; handled reentry pretty much as expected; deployed its parachutes; and was picked up by India’s coast guard.

Judging from what ISRO is doing with hypersonic aircraft tests, my guess is that one of their objectives is developing a spaceplane along the lines of Reaction Engines’ Skylon.

Folks in India have a great deal to be excited about. So, I think, do the rest of us.


2. Rocket Lab’s Electron, and Spaceports


(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The two-stage rocket did not quite make it to orbit, but the team was very happy with the test flight”
(BBC News)

New Zealand space launch is first from a private site
(May 25, 2017)

An American company has launched a rocket into space from New Zealand, the first from a private launch facility.

“Rocket Lab’s 17m-long (56ft) Electron lifted off from the Mahia Peninsula, in the North Island, the firm said.

“The test flight was the first launch from New Zealand and is a major first step in an emerging market: launching cheap disposable rockets to carry small satellites and other payloads.

“The company plans to start frequent commercial launches later this year….”

The launch was good news, and not-so-good news. The Rocket Lab’s Electron lifted off with no problems, first stage separation worked fine, but the simulated payload didn’t make it all the way to its intended orbit. That’s not at all bad for a first test flight.

This flight also showed that ground facilities at Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s North Island Mahia Peninsula are ready for use. It’s one of several privately-owned spaceports either in use, under construction, or proposed.

Today’s spaceports aren’t all, by my standards, ports. Not yet. Many are strictly launch facilities, since only SpaceX currently buuilds partly-reusable launch systems. As far as I know, anyway.

But I think it’s just a matter of time before we have freighters and passenger craft coming back for their next flight.

The Mahaia Peninsula is a good location for a spaceport these days, since we still have a far less than perfect record for flawless launches.

There’s pretty much nothing but ocean downrange, and air traffic over that part of the world isn’t as heavy as it is over existing port facilities like the Kennedy Space Center.

Spaceports


(From Virgin Galactic, used w/o permission.)
(Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico.)

Safety issues aside, my guess is that spaceports will require lots of elbow room; at least in the near future. Launch vehicles are noisy, for one thing.

That, and the physics involved, may lead to some of Earth’s major port cities not being where land and water meet. Wide open spaces, particularly those near the equator and not far from existing transportation networks, may become prime real estate.

The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority seems to have realized the advantages in being away from existing population concentrations.

I don’t envy folks who will design and maintain aerospace traffic control systems when cities like New York, Singapore, and Mumbai, want their own spaceports.

Even then, I think there’ll be a market for smallish launch systems like the Electron, and sites like the Mahaia Peninsula.

CubeSats and Cautious Optimism

Size isn’t everything. More precisely, sometimes being small is a good thing; particularly for satellites and long range probes. (March 3, 2017)

CubeSats are a case in point. Each is a standardized 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters, maximum 1.33 kilograms.

CubeSat modules cost around $100,000 USD per module these days. That price has been coming down since the first ones launched in 2003, and is still dropping.

Most CubeSats were made by academic research outfits until 2013. Word got around, costs were dropping, and most CubeSats since then have been non-academic projects.

Rocket Lab’s Electron will, if and when its commercial flights start, lift 150 to 225 kilograms, 330 to 495 pounds, of payload into sun-synchronous orbit.3

That’d be a lot of CubeSats. It’s also a good size and orbit for weather and spy satellites. About the latter, I’ll skip the usual hand-wringing about human nature and today’s world.

I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re only a few millennia away from cobbling together a competent international authority.

Centuries, if enough of us decide it’s important. As I keep saying, we’re in this for the long haul, and slow progress is still progress. (June 4, 2017; May 28, 2017; October 30, 2016)


Meanwhile, Back in America

Elon Musk’s SpaceX says their Interplanetary Transport System, ITS, could be ready for their first Earth-Mars cargo run as early as 2020. I’ll be surprised if they’re ready that early.

The ITS isn’t just huge. Like the now-cancelled VentureStar, it’s significantly different from what we’ve done so far.

That includes extensive use of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber polymers are good for aerospace applications inside Earth’s atmosphere. The stuff looks good on paper for deep space missions.

But if I signed on for one of the planned settlement runs, I’d want assurance that the carbon fiber structures had been flight-tested for long missions.

The SpaceX timetable for Mars seems reasonable, if optimistic. The first Earth-Mars cargo run is penciled in for 2022 at the earliest, followed by a passenger run about two years later: one synodic period for Earth and Mars.

Synodic period” is geek-speak for the time it takes for Earth and Mars, or any other two objects circling another one, to be in the same position relative to each other.

Even if the first colony ship was ready today, I wouldn’t be going. I’m rather old for that sort of thing, for starters.

But I’m certain that many folks would. I don’t see a problem with that, provided that we’ve developed the tech needed to make Martian settlements self-sustaining.

A few years ago, responding to what I’d written about living on Mars, someone expressed the opinion that folks should not be sent to die on Mars. I agree, in the sense that I think forcing someone to go would be a bad idea.

But since I’m no more than a few generations removed from folks who decided to “die in” North America, objecting to others making a similar decision doesn’t make sense. Not to me. And that’s yet again another topic, for another day.

Spaceships and Cities on Mars

Interplanetary spaceships and cities on Mars were ‘science fiction’ in my youth.

Depending on who’s talking, ‘science fiction’ means quite a few things.

Science fiction can be carefully-calculated tales of folks dealing with events and techonolgy that’s not here yet.

Others saw it as escapist fantasy suitable only for preteen boys whose parents didn’t care about their children’s education and reading habits.

I figure it can be all of the above, plus a bit: and minus, for me, the view of folks who enjoy films like “The Teminator.”

And Now for Something Completely Different — Science Fiction’s Silly Side

Some, make that most, movies are made for two reasons: to entertain folks, and make money. Successful ones do both.

Some, like “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” are appreciated by some and put in ‘world’s worst’ lists made by not-so-positively-impressed viewers.

My guess, looking at science fiction films of the last few decades, is that cautious optimism isn’t ‘box office.’

Or maybe studio executives figure there’s no point in trying to top William Cameron Menzies’s 1933 “Things to Come.”

With that in mind, and since I’m feeling slightly snarky, I’ll present a scenario that may be too weird even for the movies.

But who knows? Someone might take this seriously. Now, without further ado, fresh from the murky depths of my mind4

Tidal waves and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused by global warming and the Antarctic ice cap’s collapse kill everyone in New York, Los Angeles, and places with good ‘disaster’ stock footage.

Survivors keep the angst going. Then they (what else?) die, helpless and hopeless, after lots of preachy dialog and screaming.

Except for a lone survivor, endlessly battling giant flying man-eating zombie cyborg piranha created when unregulated GMO corn pollutes — — — you get the idea. I lost track of how many Alien films featured assorted survivors and cloned victims.

Think Frankenfish and The Terminator meet Splice and Sharktopus in Zombieland. Actual movie titles. I’ve enjoyed The Terminator, haven’t seen the others: and don’t feel particularly compelled to do so.

Happily for studio executives, many folks aren’t like me. “Sharktopus” led to “Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda” and “Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf.”

Like I said, I enjoyed “The Terminator.” I never lost a taste for improbable but exciting tales, developed while watching weekday after-school movies on television.

I’d probably enjoy the films more, if it wasn’t for the uneasy suspicion that they may have encouraged less-than-reasonable attitudes. On the other hand, folks had daft ideas long before the Lumière brothers made “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon.”5

Enough about movies, cringe-worthy and otherwise. Maybe too much.

A Will-be That Hasn’t Been: Yet

About what’s coming in aerospace transportation and humanity’s new horizons, I am quite sure that we’ve taken no more than the first short steps.

I’m also pretty sure our future isn’t nearly as nifty as some hope, or nasty as others fear. Also that we can count on surprises, pleasant and otherwise.

The SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System may go the way of the DC-X and Lockheed Martin VentureStar.

But someone will eventually want to lift something bigger and heavier than the largest existing vehicle will carry. Then, if dividing the cargo into pieces isn’t practical, it’ll be time to build a bigger launch vehicle.

I’ve seen thoughtless optimism about “the future” turn to equally-unconsidered pessimism, and think both make little sense. (October 30, 2016)

Some of today’s plans will almost certainly go the way of other promising developments that fell short of their goals.

Good Ideas, Innovative and Unused: So Far

The VentureStar wouldn’t have been the tallest vehicle, but would have been impressive for its innovations: which included a linear aerospike engine. I think the basic idea shows very great promise.

Lockheed Martin couldn’t get the tech to work, not well enough for flight. So VentureStar development was canceled.

The inelegant but test-flown DC-X is another good, but abandoned, idea. The McDonnell Douglas DC-X was a one-third working scale model of their planned Delta Clipper cargo ship.

I still think the Delta Clipper made more sense for commercial development than the VentureStar. The DC-X used existing tech, and was designed for minimal maintenance and ground support.

I suspect that successful test flights of the DC-X model didn’t endear it to NASA brass who preferred the VentureStar. That’s speculation, and still another topic.

It didn’t help that the last test flight of the DC-X ended in a crash that destroyed the vehicle. There were definitely some bugs that needed work before commercial production. A debatable degree of cross-range maneuverability was another unresolved issue.

I strongly suspect that we’ll see cargo and passenger runs using vehicles like the Delta Clipper, VentureStar, Skylon — and designs we haven’t thought of yet. How soon that happens depends in large part on how badly folks want the service.

One more quote, and I’m done.

“A Planet is the Cradle….”

“Планета есть колыбель разума, но нельзя вечно жить в колыбели”
“A planet is the cradle of mind, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”
(Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, from a letter written in 1911, via Wikiquote)

More, embracing truth and looking ahead with hope:


1 Hodgkins Fund background:

2 India’s space program:

3 Launch systems, CubeSats, and commercial spaceflight:

4 A tip of the hat to Ortrud, whose sensible response to conventional hopelessness started me thinking:

5 Some of my take on silliness, science, and the movies:

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London: Death, Hope, and Love

This is bad, but could have been much worse. Yesterday evening, starting around 10:00, three people in a van drove across London Bridge, deliberately running down pedestrians.1

After crossing the bridge, they left the van and attacked folks out for an evening with friends and family near Borough Market.

A few minutes later, they were dead; shot by police. They had killed seven folks by then, 48, were taken to hospitals, 36 are still hospitalized, 21 in critical condition, as I write this.


(From H. Attai, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The white van, in the centre of this photo, is believed to have been used in the attack”
(BBC News))

Responses — and Hope

About a dozen folks have been arrested, suspected of helping the attackers. The UK’s official threat level is still one notch below the highest setting, and I’m sure this will be in the news for days. At least.

I hope that folks in the United Kingdom, particularly those who are in charge, stay comparatively calm and rational.

Situations like this help me be profoundly glad that I don’t enjoy the perks — and responsibilities — of leadership, beyond what’s involved in my role as husband and father, and that’s another topic.

There is, I think, cause for hope:

“…Flowers are laid at the scene, as people come to pay their respects to the victims.

“Imam Abdul Arif, 27, from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, says he wants to ‘show solidarity’.

“‘I’m a Londoner,’ he says. ‘I came here because it happened to my home city and it happened in the name of my religion.

“‘I came to show solidarity and to show it’s not in my name.’

“Imam Arif was breaking fast and finishing his evening prayer as part of Ramadan when he heard the news of the attack.

“‘Ramadan is a time when you should be worshiping and serving humanity more than ever and these people perpetrated such a crime.

“‘My hope is that everybody is united and show the individuals who want to divide us they won’t be successful.’…”
(Cherry Wilson, BBC News (June 4, 2017))

“…Speaking in Downing Street after a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee, the prime minister said the country ‘cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are’….

“…Mrs May said the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy would be reviewed, as she promised to step up efforts to combat Islamist ideology and work with other countries to prevent the internet being a ‘safe space’ for terrorists.

“She said there was ‘too much tolerance of extremism in our country’ and while it would involve ‘some difficult and embarrassing conversations’, that must change….”
(BBC News (June 4, 2017))

“I am appalled and angered by the terrorist attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, in my home city. These acts of violence were truly shocking and I condemn them in the strongest terms.

“Muslims everywhere are outraged and disgusted at these cowards who once again have destroyed the lives of our fellow Britons. That this should happen in this month of Ramadan, when many Muslims were praying and fasting only goes to show that these people respect neither life nor faith.

“My prayers are with the victims and all those affected. I commend the work of our emergency services working hard to keep us safe and cope with the ensuing carnage.”
(Harun Khan, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain; via Twitter (June 4, 2017))

Not Missing The ‘Good Old Days’

I figure that folks who support the Ku Klux Klan believe they are defending their country and their faith against people like me.2 But I’m quite sure that many American Protestants do not support the KKK.

I certainly do not fear that an Anglo-American will put a burning cross in my front yard.

Most, I think, are much too reasonable; and no more likely to smite the unrighteous than I am. I’ll grant that living in a predominantly-Catholic town encourages my confidence.

Besides, I spent much of my life as an American Protestant: and never torched a cross.

My experience strongly suggests that many if not most of us/them are not white supremacists with latent pyromaniac and homicidal tendencies.

Excerpt from Mamma's Girls, Chick Publications, ©2012 by Jack T. Chick LLC; used w/o permission.Some, however, particularly where I grew up, expressed great concern about the “Whore of Babylon.”

That’s “queen of whores” for at least one outfit these days, but the idea’s pretty much the same.

I’ve since learned that I grew up in an area with more than the usual old-fashioned American antipathy for Catholicism and the Catholic Church.

That, and incidents like Fr. Coyle’s murder, make me glad that the ‘good old days’ aren’t coming back.

James Coyle was a triple threat to ‘American values,’ by some standards. He was Irish, Catholic, and a priest.

That’s not, entirely, what got him killed.

On August 11, 1921, he had performed a marriage ceremony for a young couple in Alabama. The newlyweds were the daughter of a Southern Methodist Episcopal minister and a Puerto Rican. A few hours later, the minister killed Fr. Coyle.

The father’s actions were justified, by some standards. His daughter had recently become a Catholic, and then married a Puerto Rican. He was charged with murder, anyway: but acquitted, after the jury heard details of the incident.

Time brings change, and sometimes change is good.

On February 22, 2012, less than a century after Fr. Coyle’s death, a North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church bishop headed a reconciliation and forgiveness service at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham.

As I keep saying, I see reasons for hope: and I do not miss the ‘good old days.’ At all.

I’m also dubious when folks apparently want protection against Muslims for the same reasons given for defending America against Catholics.

Assumptions and the Psycho Santa Catholic Connection

This is the third high-profile terrorism incident in the UK since March 22, 2017.1

The folks responsible for all three apparently had religious motives. That doesn’t, I think, show that Islam leads to mass murder.

I certainly won’t make an incendiary claim like that. Something we don’t need today is another angry voice online.

My reticence is no great virtue. I remember how unimpressed I was with warnings and innuendo about folks with the ‘wrong’ beliefs. Not favorably impressed, to be more accurate. I see no point in reinforcing the belief that religious folks aren’t reasonable.

I also remember when “former altar boy” was as common in crime news as “Vietnam veteran” had been a decade or so earlier.

About those newspaper catch phrases: it’s true that some vets committed crimes. So did some former altar boys.

There were precious few American men in a particular age bracket who weren’t Vietnam veterans. The “altar boy” connection may have fizzled when a journalist noticed that it would be hard to throw a rock in some neighborhoods and not hit a “former altar boy.”

Many news outlets, including BBC News and Al Jazeera,3 didn’t draw attention to what I called the Psycho Santa Catholic connection. Others put it in their lead paragraphs:

Man dressed as Santa kills nine at Christmas Eve party
Toby Harnden, The Telegraph (December 26, 2008)

“Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, 45, a devoted Roman Catholic and aerospace industry worker who may have recently lost his job, shot himself in the head hours after the meticulously planned carnage in Covina, California, 22 miles east of Los Angeles.

“His murderous rampage began late on Christmas Eve when an eight year-old girl opened the two-storey house’s front door in the quiet cul-de-sac to find Pardo, dressed as Father Christmas and carrying a large present….”

Parts of the blogosphere lit up with the usual outrage over those nasty Catholics.

I didn’t join in, partly because I’d become a Catholic by then. I doubt that I’d ever have spat venom quite so enthusiastically. That sort of behavior had started me on the path toward conversion, and that’s yet another topic.

About Mr. Prado, I’m sorry that he’s dead; and that he killed his family.

Valuing Human Life: All Human Life


(From HGiovanni Sagristani, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Diners threw chairs and bottles at the attacker”
(BBC News))

About that: I think killing innocent people, or myself, is a bad idea.

That’s because I see human life as sacred: all human life. Suicide is a really bad idea, since my life — and everyone else’s — is a gift from God. I have no authority to end my own life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 22582317)

I don’t always feel like life is worth living, but am glad that I developed a habit of ignoring suicidal impulses. And that’s yet again another topic. (October 14, 2016)

Because I value human life, I am very unhappy at the loss of life near London Bridge. That includes the attackers.

Given the circumstances, however, I think British police acted reasonably. If they had not, the attackers would almost certainly had killed more innocent folks; and most likely would have ended up dead anyway.

Their suicide vests were fake — that’s a new wrinkle. But they were badly outnumbered.

At least some of their would-be victims defended themselves with improvised weapons. Faced with attackers who might be expected to explode, I doubt that folks would be particularly restrained in their efforts to remain alive. A ballistic bar stool can be lethal.

Valuing human life would require me to avoid killing another person, even if I am attacked. I could, however, protect myself: even if an unintended result of my action resulted in my attacker’s death.

The same principle applies to those responsible for protecting others. (Catechism, 23072317)

Love and Working for Future Generations

In one sense, my hope comes from my trust in our Lord’s promises. (Catechism, 18171821)

I’m also sure that Johnny Cash was right: being so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good doesn’t make sense.

Neither does saying that I have one set of beliefs, and acting as if I have another.

That gets me to what our Lord said when asked “…which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36)

“He said to him, 22 ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

“This is the greatest and the first commandment.

“The second is like it: 23 You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

24 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.'”
(Matthew 22:3740)

That, plus the principle of reciprocity we call the golden rule, is easy to remember: and often very difficult to do. (June 4, 2017)

But, difficult or not, I should love God, love my neighbors, see everyone as my neighbor, and treat others as I’d like to be treated. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

All that talk about love should apply, no matter how I’m feeling. There’s nothing basically wrong with emotions. They’re part of being human. But I’m expected to think. (Catechism, 1730, 17651770, 1730, 1778, 1804, 2339)

That, and not being directly involved in UK or American politics, is why I’m not clamoring for tougher knife control laws or calling for a complete ban on vans. Or staunchly defending the right to drive vans and supporting knife deregulation.

Maybe I shouldn’t joke. At least one of those might be an issue.4

Instead, I’ll repeat what I’ve said before; and almost certainly will again. (April 30, 2017; February 5, 2017)

Part of our job is working with people of good will: all people of good will. By keeping what is good and just in our cultures, changing what is not, I think we can build a better world for future generations. (Catechism, 1917, 19281942, 1825, 1996, 2415; “Laudato si’;” “Gaudium et spes” )

It will be a long, hard, process. I do not expect to see much progress in my life. That’s okay. We’re in this for the long haul, and I think we can do better.

I am sure that we must try.

What I think about:


1 Recent UK terrorism, background and news:

2 Attitudes, mostly American, background:

3 Psycho Santa, 2008:

4 Occasional-reasonable rules:

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