Monday, September 29, 2014

There's something happening here....

Wow, it's been like an entire month since I wrote about police responding to mass protests. But this time the dateline is not in my home state. It's where I live--right here, right now, in Hong Kong.

You have probably read by now that Hong Kongers are rallying in support of democracy. There are several different groups, from students to unions to activists.  All have more or less one goal, which is for the people of Hong Kong to be able to choose the candidates they vote for, and then vote for them. Simple enough. And that's the background.

Student actions started last week. Then yesterday the other groups got involved, and things got big. On Sunday morning there were a few hundred students surrounded by police:

Small. (photo SCMP)

By midnight Sunday, some of the city's busiest commercial districts were completely shut down by protesters:


Overnight the protests spread to other busy areas, including Mong Kok, which isn't even on Hong Kong Island:


But another thing happened overnight too. The Hong Kong police tried to "handle the situation." I put that in irony quotes because, basically, nothing was handled. Not well, anyway.

Their first move was to basically keep people from joining the protesters already in place. That worked well at first but created a new problem as more and more supporters showed up: essentially, another front. Sometime in late afternoon, a sort of critical mass occurred and those crowds spilled out into some of Hong Kong's busiest roads, blocking them completely during rush hour. That meant the police were now surrounded.

So they pulled back. But they did so in such a way that they were left with protesters on two sides--again! The crowds continued to grow in Admiralty (near Central, which was supposed to be the epicenter for the protests). And at some point the sheer number of people seemed threatening, and the cops lobbed tear gas into the crowd after hours of occasional pepper spray:

That cleared things out. But only for 30 minutes or so, during which the police did... nothing. The net result? Protesters were angrier, more determined to stay, and gathering support from around the city. That's when the shock troops showed up. Carrying shotguns, shields and tear gas launchers, they plowed into the crowd behind a wall of gas:

And then? Then they stopped. And became surrounded AGAIN when the protesters returned. No amount of police escalation cleared the area or provoked the protesters to become violent. And that, it seems, is where the police ran out of ideas. Because today that same area looks like this:

Still occupied.

Both the police and the government have lost control of the situation. On the one hand, it's good that the police did not use any more violence than gas or pepper spray, for the most part. No horses. No stun batons. No pain rays or armored vehicles. So in that regard they're ahead of the game of certain Missouri cities that will remain unnamed. And it's also good that the protesters are making their point in a very strong, very peaceful way. With China's national day coming up on Oct. 1--and tons of mainland tourists bound for Hong Kong--they have definitely caught Beijing's attention.

On the other hand... they have definitely caught Beijing's attention. And that's a problem because the central government really has no good options. If they accede to the protesters' demands, they lose power. If they send in the army, they ruin Hong Kong forever.

I'm not sure what will happen next, but it's pretty plain that the status quo won't prevail. Or, to paraphrase Buffalo Springfield during a turbulent time in my home country: there's something important going on, but what it will mean in the long run... well... that ain't exactly clear.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blasts from the past

Hey, gang--long time, no see. It's not that I've been ignoring you, it's that life has been a little busy lately (and will soon get busier). But that's the usual blogger excuse. Let's talk about something more interesting, like... rockets.

There has been lots of space in the news lately. NASA's next-generation Orion spacecraft hit some milestones. Boeing was chosen as the lead contractor for a "space taxi" into Earth's orbit. Blue Origin is pitching new engines to use instead of the Russian-made RD-180s. And of course the Maven probe to study Mars' atmosphere arrived safely.

So it's fun to think that all this does indeed point to a real renewal of interest in deep space exploration. Indeed, in the next five or so years, the Orion capsule is planned to be on a spin outside Earth's orbit, just to see what she can do. It will be launched on top of the (unimaginatively named) Space Launch System, which bears some resemblance to the Apollo program's mighty Saturn V:

Tall. White. Rocket-like. Yep, fits the profile.

It should work well! But there were times before we figured out the whole rocketry thing that some really epic plans were on the drawing board. I've written a little about the U.S. proposals for nuclear rockets; here is an fascinating look at Russian plans along the same lines:
By the end of 1967, the Kremlin gave the green light to Vladimir Chelomei to work on the preliminary design of the UR-700 rocket as a backup to the troubled N1. Unlike the N1, Chelomei's rocket would be assembled out of components built in Moscow and transportable by rail. Even more importantly, it would use just 12 engines on its three stages, instead of 42 on the boosters stages of the N1. Finally, the UR-700 could launch 151 tons of payload versus 97 tons carried by the N1 and 127 tons delivered by the American Saturn-5.

In parallel with the development of the UR-700, Chelomei's engineers drafted a much bigger follow-on vehicle, which would be equipped with nuclear engines. (658) Known as Skhema "A" (Configuration "A") engine would feature the solid core nuclear reactor and enable the UR-700 to deliver as much as 250 tons into the Earth orbit. In a more distance future, a nuclear engine with liquid core reactor known as Skhema "B" (Configuration "B") would be developed, followed by an engine with a gaseous core reactor dubbed Skhema "V" (Configuration "V").
In the end, it lost out to the impressive but poorly built N1, which literally never got off the ground. And that was that for Soviet moonshot hopes.

These days everyone seems focused on getting back to the moon, or even Mars, which is great. Rocket technology has become more efficient and reliable in the decades since Apollo, but the basic physics (fuel, oxidizer, ignition) remain little changed. Because of the relative danger of getting a nuclear rocket into space--even using chemical engines--projects like the UR-700 are not likely to be revived. But it's always fascinating to see what technological solutions smart people come up with to solve problems like this... even if they don't always work out.