Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tell the Stars Goodbye

If all you ever do is stare at your feet, while you may not trip over anything you're liable to smash right into something fast or sharp or heavy that you never saw until it was right on top of you. The problem is that for a lot of people, it seems like they're comforted by knowing exactly where their feet are, and damn what's ahead. This is true of governments and organizations as well as individuals - attempts to honestly practice foresight tend to fall by the wayside because, hey, screw the future, right?

Sometimes, though, you'll come across a spectacularly bad example of a failure in forecasting - something that makes you wonder if the people in charge of it waited until they were on the way to the office before deciding what they would wear that day. An example such as, say, Project West Ford.

I'd never heard about this before I discovered the reference on Wikipedia - whether or not it's because the people involved have a vested interest in not talking about such a boneheaded project, I can't say. West Ford was a product of the early 1960s drive to start taking advantage of the opportunities presented by space: communications in particular. At the time, the free world relied on undersea cables for intercontinental communications, but these could theoretically have been cut by the Soviets. A more secure method was needed.

Obviously, the most straightforward solution was to create an artificial ionosphere capable of repeating radio transmissions by launching four hundred and eighty million miniature copper dipole antennas into orbit. This was done in May 1963, and the initial ring would have been supplemented by two more if it proved successful - incidentally also cluttering up orbit with more than a billion potential bullets.

Project West Ford didn't work out, something for which we should all be grateful; low Earth orbit is nealy choked with debris as it is. The legacy of Project West Ford is one of big ideas over good sense; of engineers staring at their shoes and insisting they're on the right path. I mean, sure. If there wasn't any alternative for space-based communications on the horizon, it's understandable that West Ford could have been considered "clunky but necessary." The idea of the Kessler syndrome doesn't seem to have occured to anyone at the time, either.

Nevertheless - take a look also at the Telstar project, a pioneering advance in communications satellite technology. Though prototypes, the Telstar 1 and Telstar 2 satellites successfully transmitted pictures, phone calls, and television feeds intercontinentally. Oh, and Telstar 1 was launched nearly a year before Project West Ford's successful needle-spraying; and for that matter, Telstar 2 was launched the same month. It's not as if comsats represented a bolt-from-the-blue technology; Arthur C. Clarke had written about the possibilities of comsats stationed in geosynchronous orbit in 1945, and if anyone was familiar with that, engineers working on a space-based communication systems should have been.

It's not as if it's over, either. Project West Ford, that is. Though some of the needles have been reentering since the 1970s, many of them are still up there in orbit - each one a potential bullet moving at eight kilometers per second. The legacy of a project that never should have been started, that would have jeopardized orbital flight far beyond the advantages it provided had it fulfilled the original plans.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to look up.

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