Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moon shot

There doesn't seem to be much to celebrate in the news the last few weeks. Tragedy, death, mayhem--almost every day, a full house of unhappy tidings.

But right around this time, 45 years ago, some remarkable stuff happened. Stuff worth celebrating. Mankind took a few minutes off from doing dumb and destructive things, and landed on the moon.

I've written about this before. But there's a picture I wanted to point out:

Flying high. Really high.

At first glance, it's just cool in the way that nearly all space pictures are cool. There's a spaceship! And planets! Awesome!

But there's actually something really remarkable about this shot, taken by astronaut Michael Collins in the Apollo command module. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat... they are cluttered with selfies. Taking a picture of yourself is common and expected.

But Collins' picture? There's a good chance it is the world's first (and only) everyone-elsie. That's right. That single frame, with the lunar lander and the Earth, contained what at that time was every single person on Earth, living or dead.

The only person not pictured was Michael Collins, the photographer.

It's a photo that literally puts everything in perspective. And maybe embracing that perspective, one optimistically hopes, would lead to more news of the inspiring kind.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Color it... stealthy

Well, well, well. Japan's long-discussed stealth fighter program has stepped into the spotlight. A technology demonstrator, the Mitsubishi ATD-X, is no longer just a rendering. It's real, and it has a fantastic paint job:

Red-tailed and radar evasive. (photo from

The plane looks to be about the size of an F-16, and it bears repeating that this isn't a production model--it is for testing technology. In this case, radar-evading technology. The hope is that it is the first step of a home-grown Japanese stealth fighter, tentatively designated the F-3.

It's really tough to tell what the ATD-X is all about--beyond scale--based on the pictures. It has the familiar angles of a stealth fighter, designed to reflect radar energy away from the transmitter. It is probably just a single-seat aircraft; few fighter prototypes aren't. It probably also is not treated with any radar-absorbing material; there would be little point in doing so and then adding a glossy paint job on top of it. And based on the shape of the wings and fuselage, it's probably designed to be supersonic. You can't see the engine exhaust clearly, so it's impossible to see whether the nozzles are stealthy or even designed to vector thrust.

Regardless, this is a big deal for a bunch of reasons. But there are two big ones. The first is that depending on how fast things go, it would make Japan the second, third or fourth nation on the planet to produce its own stealth aircraft (behind the U.S. and potentially Russia and China).

And the second is that it would take away a potential market for the F-35. That would mean a bunch of money lost for Lockheed Martin, which is working hard to sell the fifth-generation fighter in Asia and Australia. Worst-case scenario for LockMart, Mitsubishi could produce an exportable fighter itself, pulling away even more customers--although this seems unlikely.

It's hard to say what capabilities the F-3 might have, or how they might stack up to whatever is flying in 2020 or beyond. The state of the art has not been static, and indeed it's worth remembering that the first prototype stealth fighter flew more than 30 years ago.

All the same, Japan has a capable industrial base and a deserved reputation for mastery of high technology. This is a big step for the country's aviation industry... and another neat-looking airframe for aviation dorks to watch develop.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy birthday, America

It's been 238 years, but you've aged well. And as always, the best way to celebrate is... Muppets.

Happy Independence Day!