Why Trump suddenly says public should see Mueller’s report

(CNN) Why Trump suddenly says public should see Mueller’s report.


Since my concentration is not domestic politics, which is excluded from this blog, I would probably miss some of the reasons on Collinson’s list. But I would add another reason, outside his concentrated gaze,  but in the center of my field of view.

Hypothesis: Trump has been warned that the near-final report has already been obtained from D.O.J. computers.

The computers used for the Mueller investigation are doubtless on an air-gapped network. If you want to transfer information between one air-gapped network and another, the standard method is to print it  out and scan it in.  Since USB memory sticks are a common malware vector, USB ports are frequently disabled. Unfortunately for security, many attacks are possible on air-gapped networks. (ZDNET) Four methods hackers use to steal data from air-gapped computers is just an intro. The U.S. intel community possesses the requisite expertise.

There are many other methods, both ancient and modern, that will not be detailed here.

There is some risk to those who use the tools. But the wide support for release of the report may mitigate this risk, since a leak or a hack may be viewed as a patriotic act.

How probable is  a leak? The human factor figures in both compromise of an air-gapped system, and leaking the hacked info. James Comey mentioned his fear of leaks in his decision of October 28, 2016 to announce the resumption of the Clinton email probe.  Comey’s decision gauges the risk of a Mueller report leak.

All news organizations need to guard themselves from rut-based thought.  Collinson’s list is detailed and useful, but it is contained by “legitimate politics.”

CNN is not the only news organization afflicted by rut-based thinking. It’s probably universal. It respects no subject. The flaw also occurred in reporting the 737 Max crashes, where valuable clues were ignored to “go with the flow.”

Lewis Mumford wrote on how equating politics with “everything” afflicted and stunted the development of Greek cities in the Golden Age of Greece, with the advent of modern politics.

It’s no coincidence.



US Air Force, Boeing has ‘severe situation’ , Safety Culture

(CNN) US Air Force says Boeing has ‘severe situation’ after trash found on refueling planes.

This is not  about neatness.  Quoting,

Boeing will now have to conduct spot inspections on the aircraft during production, including specific areas of the planes that may be sealed as part of the production processes…Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, made clear his concerns after visiting Boeing’s Everett Washington plant where the plane is assembled…

…Roper  emphasized to reporters that while the issue of the material and objects — known as Foreign Object Debris, or FOD — being left inside an aircraft as it comes off the production line is not a design or safety risk [boldface mine], it is a matter of great concern to the military.

Oh yes it is. Roper engages in double-speak. Maybe he doesn’t want to bash Boeing when they’re down.

“FOD is really about every person, everyone in the workforce, following those procedures and bringing a culture of discipline for safety,” Roper said.

More double-speak.  In the first paragraph, it’s not a safety risk. In the second paragraph, it’s about safety. Since Roper seems to be editing himself, I’ll explain. An airplane contains many voids that are sealed, or baffled from direct view by welded metal. Tools left in  voids are as dangerous as surgical clamps left in a patient. Follow this chain:

  • The tanker plane is made of aluminum. Aluminum is a soft metal, with finite fatigue life.
  • Aircraft tools  are made of extremely hard molybdenum alloy, with infinite fatigue life.
  • In the high vibration environment of an aircraft fuselage, a tool left in a sealed void for years  bounces around, fatiguing the aluminum, accelerating crack growth, and scratching off anti corrosion coatings.
  • Moisture in the air, and condensation, combined with the dissimilar metals of steel and aluminum form a battery, resulting in galvanic corrosion.
  • What happens if the tool spends years banging against a cold-bond (glued aluminum) lap joint? You could have something like an Aloha Flight 243.

As an airplane ages, the wiring deteriorates as well. Trash left in a void could combine with a minor electrical flaw to cause a fire.

So this is not about delivering tidy planes to the Air Force. Wherever feasible, voids of KC-46 planes already delivered should be imaged, to avert possible future catastrophes.

But what can be done to instill pride in  a workforce that thinks this way?






Boeing, FAA, Space Shuttle Challenger, Richard Feynman, and Safety Culture

Maybe it’s universal: In any organization, safety culture is the first thing to rot, because it pays no dividends.  Safety rot can cut future dividends, but paying it forward has always been a weak motivation.

The early reports of witnesses indicated a catastrophic mechanical failure, evidenced by fire, smoke, and a hole in the airplane. The pitch control problem, based in software,  which flies a Max nose-first into the ground, has no direct connection with these symptoms. The loss of pitch control could have easily resulted from severed hydraulic lines.

So the FAA concluded that two hull losses within 6 months were probably not related. In a classic wrong decision, the FAA initially chose not to ground the Max. When vertical flight profile data became available, it provided a  smoking gun: the pitch control anomaly was active in the Ethiopian crash.

Yet it may not be THE smoking gun. The first cause of the Ethiopian tragedy seems to be an engine failure, which the crew might have successfully handled, had there not  been the fatal distraction of a pitch control problem. Failure to anticipate means deficient safety culture. At the minimum it must include:

  • Exposure of pilots without specialized training  to every conceivable scenario.
  • Supervision  by a very antagonistic tiger team.
  • Prodding by a very antagonistic team of statisticians.
  • Glasnost from everybody.  We’re not Russians!

Boeing doesn’t have this culture. Riding herd on Boeing is the FAA, staffed by the revolving-door, with  deep love for companies, airplanes, and  legend. It isn’t enough. It may even be a negative. Passing FAA scrutiny may have assured the weak-minded at Boeing they are doing the right thing. With safety culture, the only efffective adversary is yourself. Question, question, never stop!

Only 6 years ago, Boeing experienced a similar lack of safety culture with the 787 batteries. The 787 uses lithium ion batteries, which cannot be made fail safe. (Refer to the previous post.) Quoting (Wikipedia) Boeing 787 Dreamliner battery problems,

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report on December 1, 2014, and assigned blame to several groups:[3]

    • GS Yuasa of Japan, for battery manufacturing methods that could introduce defects not caught by inspection
    • Boeing’s engineers, who failed to consider and test for worst-case battery failures
    • The Federal Aviation Administration, that failed to recognize the potential hazard and did not require proper tests as part of its certification process

When I learned Boeing was using lithium batteries, long before the fires, I got a chilly feeling. Boeing was relying on the same judgment Sony had made about the ancestral 18650 lithium cell. In the lab, these batteries are resistant to trauma. But with the right kind of manufacturing defect, they become little bombs. So here’s another safety culture rule:

  • Assume every part is potentially defective, and see what happens.

I wondered why Boeing chose not to put the batteries in fire-proof stainless steel cases, venting to the outside. (Eventually, after 5 battery fires in one week, they did.)

The perverse reason: An airplane cannot be made fail-safe. To install 787  batteries in an effectively fail-safe enclosure would be overkill, because there are too many other things that can bring a plane down. The logic: If you can make 1% of the single-point-failure gadgets in an airplane fail-safe, while the other 99% rely on redundancy, there is no measurable benefit to passenger safety.

The pattern:

  • Reliance on lab tests of parts that do not reflect manufactured defects and real-world consequences.
  • Since an airplane cannot be made fail-safe, belief that a part can be made too safe.
  • A safety culture heavily based on badly applied statistics, without effective oversight and challenge.

The buck stops at the Boeing executive suite, which means sales. Sales are the lifeblood of a plane company, contingent on geopolitics, backslapping, trade deals, technology transfer, and maybe even greased palms.  Safety does not make the list.

Senile safety culture is a disease of for-profits. But how about non-profits? NASA holds a special place in our culture, achievement for the sheer joy of it. A lot of people would take a pay cut to work for NASA. And yet, it happened at NASA, on January 21, 1986, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, already fatally ill, was appointed to the Rogers Commission. He found the cause, which he demonstrated In a simple, yet dramatic demonstration involving  a C-clamp, a glass of ice-water, and a piece of o-ring  rubber.

America needed a hero to investigate the heroic. Feynman filled that role, but his account varies from the myth. According to Feynman, individuals volunteered the necessary information, organized in away to lead him to the conclusion. Feynman said he never would have found it on his own.

They knew the answer before Feynman.  (Wikipedia) Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, shows that at the engineering level, there was a vibrant safety culture, cognizant of what Feynman eventually discovered, that failed to influence management.

Even within enlightened NASA, there was no one to tell. Even though NASA occupies a special place in the American mind, something prevented  Feynman’s helpers to make known what they knew. Feynman filled the gap with his fame. With his ingenuity, on-camera with a glass of ice water, a C-clamp, and a piece of rubber, Feynman gave us common sense.

Feynman discovered that in calculating the safety of the Space Shuttle, NASA had misused or ignored basic statistics, the kind that would flunk you out of a 2nd year stat course. He showed that the chance of a Space Shuttle disaster was 1 in a 100, not 1 in 100,000. With similar faulty reasoning, the FAA chose not to ground the Max.

Common sense said ground the plane. The FAA said no to common sense, because they don’t understand this simple equation from Decision Theory:

Average Cost of a Decision =  

(Chance of Getting it Right) X (Cost of Getting it Right) 

+ (Chance of Getting it Wrong) X (Cost of Getting it Wrong)

The cost of getting it wrong is 300 lives.

It’s time to ground the FAA.




More Boeing 737 Max Musings

Quoting (Reuters) Ethiopian plane smoked and shuddered before deadly plunge, a witness said,

“It was a loud rattling sound. Like straining and shaking metal…”

This draws attention to one of  the engine fans. While the original jet engine produces all the forward thrust from a hot exhaust, modern high-bypass jet engines contain something resembling an airplane propeller, called the fan. Like a room fan, it moves cool air, both through the combustion chamber, and around it. You don’t see the resemblance to an airplane propeller, because the fan is hidden by a shroud.

Because the fan moves cool air, it can be made from a variety of materials. The traditional choice has been titanium. In the past 5 years, carbon fiber, with titanium facings, has been taking over, because it is lighter, and more resistant to bird strikes.

Bird strikes are simulated by firing a dead chicken into the fan at high speed. Most of the time, an engine withstands a bird strike with minor damage. Sometimes, it causes major damage. Over 60 years, thousands of bird strikes have provided a huge amount of experimental data, mostly with titanium fans.

Both titanium and carbon fiber are quirky materials. But carbon fiber is a composite of multiple substances. Without titanium facings, early carbon fiber fans disintegrated on bird strikes.

The combination of fiber and titanium is an even more complicated mix. While apparently stronger, the ways it can  fail may not have been completely anticipated. After all, it hasn’t been around for 60 years of bird strikes.

Now we add a complication. The engine in question is controlled by BAE’s FADEC-2 “Full Authority Digital Engine Control-2.”  If FADEC-2 realized an engine fan had a problem it should have shut it down. But FADEC may have had no programming for the particular case of a facing strip that was torn away from the fan, raking the shroud at high RPM (the noise.)

The mix becomes more lethal when the pilots, distracted by the pitch control problem, leave FADEC-2 to handle the engine by itself. They can’t be expected to kill the engine manually when they are fighting for control. When the  titanium facing is ingested further into the engine, the turbine blades are cut apart, causing an uncontained “explosion.”

Here two systems intended to enhance the safety margin over human control combine in an unanticipated way to create a lethal event.

With the enthusiasm about A.I., much more of this lurks in our future.



Boeing 737 Max Crashes

(CNN) Ethiopian Airlines crash is second disaster involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 in months.

This is a short explainer for readers who aren’t familiar with engineering culture. Besides all the equations, there actually is a culture. This is speculative, intended to help the reader better follow the accident investigation.

Edit: (Reuters) Ethiopian plane smoked and shuddered before deadly plunge. The sounds, smoke, fire, and small articles that trailed from the airplane before it crashed suggest an engine explosion, with containment failure, penetration of the fuselage, and damage to the hydraulics. The damage may have been too severe to save the plane, even without the pitch control problem.

Original post:

An airplane is a   a complex of “systems”. What happens when a system breaks is of great concern to the responsible engineer. The highest degree of design safety is called “fail safe.” There might be argument about what that is. When Sony designed the original 18650 lithium cell, they tried all sorts of things to make it catch fire. They hammered a nail through it. They crushed it. Nothing bad happened. Later, with the 18650 in wide use,  a pallet of such cells brought down UPS Airlines Flight 6.

The UPS crash is a story of the failure of fail-safe. But an airplane can never be fail safe. Like nuclear reactors and fast cars,  they contain too much energy to be made inherently safe. Instead, airplanes rely on redundancy, and what engineers call stability. Commercial jetliners, when operating normally, are described by pilots as easy to fly. The job of flying an airliner has been described as hours of boredom punctuated by occasional terror.

Airliners, by design, are “stable”, which means that the airplane can be trimmed to fly almost straight and level by itself. Here “stable” is actually a lie. The correct word is “controllable”. An airplane can also be designed to be unstable, which has many advantages. The only disadvantage is that it cannot be controlled directly by a human. Instead, the pilot manipulates the stick and rudder, or side-stick, telling a set of computers what he wants the airplane to do. This is called fly-by-wire.

Computer control of airplanes has so many advantages that even airliners, which are “stable”, use such systems. Airbus was the first to adopt fly-by-wire that would block a pilot from executing a command unsafe to the airplane. Boeing’s fly-by-wire is more permissive. Because airliners are “stable”, both brands can and do come with complete manual-control backups, should the computers lose their minds.

Key point: The computers in a fly-by-wire system are at least triple-redundant. Because the system has to work 100% all the time, with grave consequences of failure (even with manual backup!) an extraordinary engineering effort goes into reliability of the hardware and the software.

The 737-Max has one feature that is a slight step in the direction of unstable aircraft, almost all of which are jet fighters. To clear the wings, the larger engines were moved forwards. Moving the engines forward causes a tendency for the plane to pitch up, which risks a stall. But an airplane with a “tendency” is not a new problem. Lots of airplanes have a rough edge here or there.

Boeing decided to smooth around this with a system that would prevent the nose from pitching up. Key point: Because the 737-Max can fly just fine without the system, it was not made triple-redundant. It has been suggested it is  vulnerable to single point failure, the failure of a single part. The optional nature of this feature resulted in a lack of anticipation of what would happen not with the system turned on or off, but at the moment of failure.

Rubio, Johnson; Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’; Punishing the Tiger

(CNN) Saudi prince has gone ‘full gangster,’ says Rubio, as lawmakers decry kingdom’s abuses, and

(Reuters) U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’. Quoting,

As the hearing continued, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said bin Salman had gone “full gangster,” an assertion repeated by another Republican, Senator Ron Johnson.

We need to talk about morality, man and animal. When a tiger escapes its cage and kills somebody, if it can be captured safely, it is usually returned to the cage.  A tiger can experience pain, but it cannot experience remorse. A dog may be euthanized, even though it may be capable of remorse.

We have standards for people, but they are similarly elastic. The sins of Prince Salman, if entirely true, are microscopic compared to Kim Jong-un, who  makes human rights concerns in Iran seem like a parking ticket. For the better part of the 20th century, the U.S. did business with corrupt and brutal dictators.

Refer to Saudi Arabia’s executions, 2014-2017, published prior to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Capitol punishment for drug smuggling is not unique, but execution of 47 for  offenses deemed “terrorism”, which includes protest and other nonviolent acts, and is said to include juveniles, is  analogous to Khashoggi’s murder. Besides the almost-explicit conversations monitored by the CIA, this pattern probably figured in the conclusion of the CIA that MBS ordered the murder.

It’s important to bare the ugliness, to argue to work with it. The moral taint of Latin American puppets does not apply here. We did not create Saudi; Ibn Saud did. There is a tendency in the West to view places like Saudi as distorted versions of the West. It is not; Saudi is its own thing, in many ways a living fossil, because there never was an Arab Renaissance. In the entire Arab World, Saudi is the least changed, the least penetrated, because it was never colonized, and infrequently visited by empires. It is not a Western hybrid.

Before oil was discovered in 1938, there was nothing in the empty desert to interest conquerors. The western coast of the peninsula,  Hejaz, was part of the Ottoman Empire, but control never extended inland. This map, the Ottoman Empire in 1683, shows the empty gray that became Saudi Arabia, a place without a political history before 1902, when Ibn Saud began to conquer the tribes that roamed the sands. It took 30 years.

Saudi Arabia is a living fossil. To hold a fossil to our enlightened standards is like punishing the tiger. The cultural basis for remorse is relative. And in the West, we punish the guilty, but we absolve the insane. We do not punish collectively, so we look for the guilty. But in Saudi, the “guilty” ruler isn’t separate from  society. He is embedded in it.

The senators might want to punish Saudi on the moral level — akin to the punishing the tiger, or they might want to encourage change. Other faces have been mooted, which supposes a nonexistent level of influence, and the idea that they would be more humane. Perhaps we should respect the choice of King Salman, who pushed the elder brothers of MBS aside in favor of his youngest. In a country of old men, why this choice?

Remarkably, King Salman envisioned a modern future, and found only his youngest free of obligation to the old ways, and who could live long enough to see change through. The brutality results from fear of failure, which could result from a coup, assassination, or the activation of opposing alliances which are pretty active as it is.

Why would the ulema go along with a transformation that would destroy much of their power, replacing it with a civil society? Why would the royals, numbering in the thousands, go along with the redistribution of their oil-based subsidies for wider benefit? Why would terror sympathizers tolerate the dilution of Wahhabi culture that gives them refuge, inspiration, and money?

The above would prefer the facade of reform, prefer the petty tyrant to the effective one. Humanity is not a choice;  Saudi has no liberal wing.

Allegations of (Wikipedia) Saudi support for the 9/11 attack have some basis. The typical method is via foreign investments that launder money donated to radical Islamic charities. Some involved officials have been dismissed by MBS. That this occurs should not surprise; extremism is a natural extension of  Wahhabism. Dismissal is a bold, risky move for MBS, since extremists cannot be reliably excluded from the security apparatus.

So how does MBS stay alive?

  • The Arab answer to the above is to be a dictator, and compel cooperation with harsh punishment.
  • The primer for every dictator states that control begins with the illusion of it, and ends with the details.
  • In most cases, the transition to modernity is marked by rulers who leave questionable legacies, or leave in mild disgrace, but were stepping stones to liberalization.

This is the dreadful  pattern of the Middle East. Egypt ratified a constitution that disposed of political liberty. Turkey’s move was similar.  Yet remarkably, Ethiopia elected (NPR) Sahle-Work Zewde as the first woman president. In 40 years, from Marxism to democracy. This was the result of natural evolution, not sanctions.

Senators Rubio and Johnson should think about whether they are punishing the tiger, which cannot experience remorse, or attempting influence for the good. The U.S. has no ability to influence the secession, and if it did, the result would be more petty than good.

MBS has an alternative. In morals-speak, If you’re bad, you can always turn to Russia or China. These choice no longer comes with political subversion as a side dish, only generic corruption Saudi is well equipped to deal with.



India’s Failed Pakistan Air Raid; the Siliguri Corridor

(Reuters) Satellite images show madrasa buildings still standing at scene of Indian bombing.

It sounds like India had faulty intelligence, targeting, and execution. The bombs missed their target, which might have been a good thing. Although the madrassa is run by  (Aljazeera) terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad, childhood is still an age of innocence.

The buildings are still standing. This is the result of  a “hollow military”, one which appears to have all the elements, both material and organizational, but can’t actually fight effectively. On close inspection, a hollow military has faulty procurement, training, and execution.

The state of mind that allows this, a world of reduced belligerence, is a good thing. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s military had hollowed out, posing negligible threat to Russia. European weapons were job programs. The Eurofighter, sports car of the sky, can’t carry the JDAM, the essential smart bomb, because sex sells, and JDAMs aren’t sexy.

Then Russia gave Europe a kick, causing panic in NATO, which responded  by filling the military holes. Russia’s appreciation of the peace dividend had been lacking. They aren’t enjoying it anymore. Now Russia is an impoverished “great power”, with plenty of room for “real men” to charge up the Syrian version of San Juan Hill. Russians should pay more attention to Norman Schwarzkopf, who said (Wikipedia, boldface mine),

… War is a profanity, it really is. It’s terrifying. Nobody is more anti-war than an intelligent person who’s been to war. Probably the most anti-war people I know are Army officers—but if we do have a war, I think it’s going to be limited in nature like Vietnam and Korea. Limited in scope. And when they get ready to send me again, I’m going to have to stop and ask myself, “is it worth it?” That’s a very dangerous place for the nation to be when your own army is going to stop and question.[55]

The tragedy of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and China’s claim to  parts of the various China seas, is the loss of  hollow militaries. While continuing to trade raw materials and smartphone parts, trading partners are actually preparing for conflict, in the sense of creating militaries that can actually fight.

In the West, fear rules. With the hunger of Russia and China for new territory, might they try to grab  more? That they will ultimately lose much more, in the quality of their lives, than the value of their acquisitions is unappreciated.  Skipping the rationalizations of geopolitics, it could be  a mind-virus, something in the old reptilian brain, screaming “More, more….more!”

But what does this have to do with India?

One of the next “mores” for China is Doka La, located at the  junction of Bhutan, China, and India, claimed by both Bhutan and China, defended by India. The dispute acquires strategic importance with proximity to the 13 mile-wide Siliguri Corridor, a.k.a. the “Chicken’s Neck”, the sole connection of India with its northeastern territories. The Indian account (economictimes.indiatimes.com), Behind China’s Sikkim aggression, a plan to isolate Northeast from rest of India, acknowledges the boundary dispute and gives plausible motive. (Wikipedia) 2017 China–India border standoff differs in unresolved detail. China attempted to extend an existing road into  disputed territory, and India resisted.

The current threat has surgical precision, compared to the 1962 Sino-Indian War, when China overran large and widely separated areas in the northwest and northeast of India. Mysteriously, China withdrew almost entirely, back to their claimed line of control. There was wide agreement that Mao’s China was not expansionist; it had the inward focus of the Middle Kingdom. Perhaps Mao reasonably worried about 600 million Indians with a grudge.

Under Xi Jinping, China’s outward focus and expansionist drive is measured by the  the Nine-Dash Line. Is Xi Jinping’s China as respectful of the wrath of a billion Indians as Mao was? Or does he intend strategic pressure on the “Chicken’s Neck”, the only connection to India’s northeastern territories?

It’s hard to fight at 15,000 feet. The terrain is not tactically favorable to China, though China has a road, while India does not. But the incompetence of the nighttime JeM raid could tempt. That India’s force structure, which begins with reconnaissance and ends with release of a programmed smart munition , was incapable of the mission, is only half the shame. The other is that they didn’t know the limitation.

India used an Israeli precision guided bomb, the SPICE, which uses computer vision (EO) in the bomb itself to identify and lock onto the target. If it can’t see the target, it switches to  GPS as a backup. EO makes these bombs much more expensive than the JDAM. So you really want good images, or very good GPS coordinates. Since the SPICE has two guidance options, the Indian force lacked both:

  • Target locations, accurate to the yard, not the neighborhood.
  • Pictures of the targets usable by the SPICE EO vision tracker.

To cap it off, India lost no time  announcing a  bomb damage assessment of total success. When you do a rotten job, it’s handy to have someone as rotten to cover you. The rot might not be restricted to the team that executed.

The temptation increases if India and Pakistan fight. Somebody in China might be thinking  the main danger of fighting India at Doka La is to die laughing.

A recommended instructional video for the Indian Air Force, by noted strategist Jimmy Breslin, can be viewed here.







China Plans Space Power Station; Baloney!

(CNN) Space power plant and a mission to Mars: China’s new plans to conquer the final frontier. Quoting,

The completed solar farm would be placed in a geostationary orbit over a receiving station on Earth. It would transmit the energy — either in the form of a laser or as microwaves — to the Earth base, where it could be reconverted to electricity and distributed via the grid.

Power-in-space, this way, is nonsense. It has two possible purposes:

  • Motivate creation of spin-off technology. The 60’s “space race”, to “put a man on the moon” gave us nothing directly, yet it laid much of the foundation of the modern world.
  • Weaponization of space, with the ultimate satellite destroyer. The geosynchronous location, 22,300 miles above the surface of the earth, is not a good place for a power station, for reasons to be described.

Let’s do a napkin calculation.  The current cost per pound of payload, to reach that high orbit, is about $12000 per pound. It is that low because of the huge number of communication satellite launches, with similar form factors and weights. This is not so with an orbiting power station, where the payload is accompanied by complex robotic machinery. But costs will decrease, so, projecting a decrease of 100X, our WAG is $120/lb, or, roughly $260/kg.

The CNN article offers a size of two square kilometers. For our purpose, it is more useful to start with a raw solar array power. Let’s make it 4 billion watts, 4GW, about the size of a large nuclear power station with several  reactors. To convert this into mass, our benchmark is the newest, lightest solar array in space, the (TechBriefs) Flexible Array Concentrator Technology, developed by NASA. Furled on a carpet-like substrate, it unfurls to  produce (at most) 400 watts/kilogram.

4 gigawatts of this weighs  10 million kilograms, about 22 million pounds. The “boost cost”, to get it into orbit, is $2.6BN. To keep things simple, we set the cost of building all the parts to be boosted at $2.6BN as well.

Now comes power conversion, the equivalent of an electrical substation in space, to combine all the power generated by the array into a form usable by the lasers. Anything that handles as much energy as a nuke plant (and, as we shall see, wastes most of it) is going to be large and massive. It also requires cooling. This space-plant requires dissipating heat similar to the cooling tower of a nuke.

The latest thing in lasers, the fiber laser, is touted for efficiency. But while the fiber and the diode pumps are themselves efficient, the “wall-plug” efficiency is only about 30%. The rest goes up in heat, so the lasers also have to be massively cooled.

All that A/C  in space, 22,300 miles up. How do you do a service call? With a robot, which might not know what parts to bring.  Sears won’t write a contract.

So for the  plant required to get these watts back to earth, let’s put down $1.6BN to build, and $1.6BN to boost. With 30% efficiency, you have only 1.2GW of the original 4 headed towards earth, in the form of a laser beam.

Summing the costs:

  • $2.6B for the solar array.
  • $2.6B to boost it into orbit.
  • $1.6B to build the power converters and lasers.
  • $1.6B to boost the above.

Total: $8.4B, not including upkeep. (As John von Neumann said, there’s no point in being precise if we don’t know what we are talking about.)  How much electric do we get for that price, and for how long?

It doesn’t all get back to earth. How much is absorbed by the atmosphere depends upon the location of the earth plant, and the color of the lasers. See (Humboldt State University) Atmospheric Absorption & Transmission.

If China has the good sense to put their ground receiving station on the Tibetan plateau, 3 miles above sea level, (see insolation chart), 75% of the laser beam could make it through. Visible light works the best,  blue-green, but it’s also necessary to consider what color the solar cells on the ground prefer. Anyone who looks up would be instantly and permanently blinded. Alternatives to solar cells that can use safer near-infrared, such as a “heat engine” boiling-water-mechanical converter require that the laser beam be so concentrated it would fry eggs. That’s dangerous!

Let’s generously give the solar cells on the ground efficiency of 50%.  Then 37.5% makes it out of the ground plant. Or the original 4 billion watts, only 450 megawatts is left, which has to be converted to grid power, with another loss, and more transmission losses to get it from the sunny Tibetan Plateau to consumer regions. This takes it down to about 300 megawatts. You can get that out of a single gas turbine. But wait!, you say. Gas turbines are not green. Well, neither is boosting 35 million pounds into geosynchronous orbit.

How durable would this accomplishment be?  ( NASA) On-Orbit Performance Degradation of the International Space Station P6 Photovoltaic Arrays quotes give-or-take 0.3%/year. But the ISS is in low orbit, below the inner Van Allen radiation Belt.  China’s power station is a much higher geosynchronous orbit, beyond the protection of earth’s magnetic field, exposed to a much harsher  radiation environment. The radiation hazard is severe.

(ScienceDirect) Study of degradation of photovoltaic cells based on … suggests 10% over ten years. But  another Carrington Event would destroy the station. We almost had one in 2012.

Microwaves are not an alternative for this distance. They will not focus. In near earth orbit, a few hundred miles up, microwaves become feasible. In low orbit, he radiation hazard to the solar cells is much less. Boost and servicing costs are reasonable. China would probably say the geosynchronous orbit is chosen so that the orbiting station can have fixed aim at the ground station.

It’s preposterous. The whole thing is, except as cover for an industrial activity too vast to conceal. In smaller scale, it is a feasible development for war in space, capable of frying satellites very efficiently and quickly.

Things being what they are, how would you shoot it down?  Standard launch profiles reach geosynchronous orbit in about 5 1/4 hour,  but with low speed relative to the target.  Here time and speed are of the essence. But can we rely on automatic guidance?

That’s where the new Space Force comes in.

Where in Hell is Major Kong?