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Microspace Vs. Terror

beyond linoleum
by Rick Fleeter
Herndon - Mar 5, 2002
Linoleum. 15 years of watching teachers etch chalk on blackboards, watching black minute hands on round white faces tick, sitting on plastic, writing on that amoeba-like blob of formica protruding out from the vicinity of my cramped right elbow, feet planted on Linoleum.

Eyes fixed on Linoleum - decades honing eye contact avoidance. I open the final exam book - there's only one question - Design a microsatellite system to fight terrorism.

My eyes trace the fine lines which separate the Linoleum squares and I wonder about Linoleum - anything is better, more interesting, more tractable, than another three hour exam.

Microsatellites can't differentiate between shoe rubber and C-4 plastique. They can't detect biological warfare agents or weapons. Satellites - our professional lives - reduce to 2 applications - remote sensing and communications.

On the comms side, I could create a massive swarm - hundreds of small apertures, phase locked to create an adaptive array antenna that can hear faint earthbound radio communications. Or we could remotely sense something - troop movements, missile launchers, maybe.

My pentel is not motivated to write. Macrosatellites do those things already, and every so often, somebody who understands just a little about the system finds a work-around, and the headlines remind us that all our money and power can't buy a finger to stick in every hole in every dike.

I think about Mad Magazine - Spy Vs. Spy - A single ironic statement sketched for 30 years by a Cuban refugee, on the futility of measures and countermeasures. Back in the '60s I laughed at Spy Vs. Spy - now I am it. Design a microsatellite to fight terrorism. Until the first time it works, and then the terrorists work around it, and then we go around the loop again.

Measures and countermeasures are useless against an enemy whose hate is so intense that it will die just to incur a relatively small loss, even an inconvenience, or the creation of a doubt, on our side.

Nice philosophical end run, but it's thirty minutes down, and everyone else in the room is writing and drawing and calculating. Probably they are creating harmonic orbits, constellation maintenance algorithms, ranging, and deployable antennas.

I've got to put something on paper... Gravity Gradient vs. Al Queda. It's too ridiculous.

I consider the heroic, but ultimately self destructive, protest of the blank bluebook. I'll be a hero - an academic terrorist - killing my grade for the cause of nihilism. No - I already tried that last semester... which is why I need these three credits.

Why do they hate us? Nobody knows. My mother told me, filled with contempt when I missed swim practice because one of the older guys who had a license and a car forgot to pick me up, that dependency breeds contempt. Bicycles are all about freedom from dependency - on parents, on oil companies, on repair shops.

Probably a lot of things breed contempt, but that's the only wise saying I know about contempt. Do they hold contempt for us because we have Microsoft and Dell and Apple and we run the World Wide Web? Do they hate us because if you want a ride into orbit the West is your only ticket? Do they hate us because of MIT and Caltech and Princeton and Stanford - because we write the instruction books for all the cool toys? Because we're born speaking English, C++ and IPO?

INSERT IMAGE of spuntik here
I scribble a faceted sphere - a soccer ball satellite. Some antennas - dipoles are easy to draw. solar panels on the hexagonal facets. Some of them are blank - flat panel L-Band antenna, I write in neat draftsman's print.

How does L-Band fight terror? I cover the page with assorted satellites - GAS Can shaped cylinders, deck of cards, 40 x 40 x 60 Ariane ASAP prisms, ALEXIS-like bodies with orthogonally deployed solar panels. Orbcomm hockey pucks.

The Wizard of Oz says what they've got, that I don't have, is a diploma. He's got that right. And what have I got, that terrorists don't have? The keys to the technology castle.

Well, thank God for that or we'd all be in big trouble, right?

Microsatellites used to make sure terrorists don't have microsatellites? ITAR in Orbit - that creates the safe world of the 1960s we're all so nostalgic for, when instead of hundreds of terrorist cells all over the world, we just had the Soviets, and maybe the Chinese, aiming a few thousand nuclear warheads at our major cities.

I doodle flags on the flat panel antennas on the satellites - Afghanistan, Iraq... I don't know the flag of Sudan - so I doodle S-U-D-A-N in blocky letters with Marvel Comics style shadowing.

I'll defect to the other side - Microsatellites as tool of terror. Maybe reenter them on command - or maybe pre-programmed in case they bomb my cave - to pock the evil West with deep craters. But - that's just ballistic missiles lacking warheads - not microspace. George Bush is already on to that one.

US - the land of lawyers, or so they say in Japan. Lawyer jokes - lawyers are easy to hate - except your own lawyer after a big company steals your idea, or a car knocks you off your bike. Lawyers are easy to hate - except your own lawyer. That's what a lawyer will tell you.

The truth of the final exam is: I can't even figure out how to terrorize anybody with a microsatellite. I will never work on another damned microsatellite, I swear. Just let me out of here - I'll reincarnate with a major in Hispanic Studies. Or Urban Planning.

Technology is so very easy to hate - - yeh, like when your kid is sick, dying, but their kids have doctors and hospitals and vaccines. Engineers are easy to hate when they build airplanes and missiles and guns - or even when they build cars you couldn't buy with 20 years' salary.

Teachers - hateable - when the only ones you have are agents of the State. Universities are easy to hate - if you've never had the gift of four years to live at one, to learn how to access the world. From the outside a University is just a leisure palace for over-rich semi-adults avoiding responsibility.

My spherical satellite is store and forward comms. Definitely '70s Amsat technology. My deployable solar panel satellite - space research from the '80s "proof that something useful can be done for 250 kg" campaigns. The GAS Can cylinder - microgravity of the '90s "space factory" era.

I do a Clementine style launch envelope filler - 1.5 meter remote sensing plus hyperspectral - "let's not admit that making money on remote sensing went down with the dotcom bubble".

My bluebook is filling, but not with ideas. And my three hours? - almost gone says the orange Ironman Timex. I can hear its tiny second hand tick. I am the Space Odyssey of 2001 - a year late - squeezed between an infinite plane of linoleum below, and accoustile florescent above. Soon I will realize, sitting on white French furniture in my evaporating dorm room, that these three hours, and my life, are over.

In my open-book self-pity, I understand one thing. I understand who I am, and the ridiculous role written for me to fill in the aerospace cosmos: I'm the piano man of microspace - ready with a tune for every occasion - astronomical all-sky monitoring, or low res earth observation.

Or just hum a few bars and I can embellish with X-band rangefinding transponders, triple junction photovoltaics and Power PC image compression platforms with watchdog timers up and down the computing hierarchy.

Aerobraking, solar sailing, nitrous catalyzing, software frequency synthesizing. Does Mozart really make you smarter? Not in my case apparently - any more than weight lifting makes you swim faster. Mental effort makes you smarter, and physical effort makes you faster.

Building technology, even 2nd rate Hyundais derived from old GM drive trains and abandoned Japanese body molds, makes you a technologist. And if you are a technologist, can you hate technology? If you are an engineer, can you dis' engineers? If you are a teacher, can you reject teaching? If you live on campus, isn't the University home?

Microsatellites are not a micropore filter through which no terrorist can penetrate. They aren't a sensor so finely tuned, so precisely pointed, and so acute that any plot is laid bare via its evil stray photons, phase coherently amplified in a sparse orbiting array.

I name my erstwhile proto-satellites - they are the C major scale of space - so basic, so obvious, so naive. Kandahar. Tehran. Basque. Mogadishu. These are my anti-terror tools?

No. Not the satellites - the hardware is always a measure awaiting a counter measure. People are the anti-terror weapon that can't be countermeasured - people arguing over gravity gradient versus single momentum wheels, calculating link margins and modeling vibration response.

People who deeply understand NiCads and Gibbs Free Energy feel pain when a battery is needlessly discharged. Chasing capital in Silicon Valley can create a hatred of VCs - until you succeed, or you understand why you failed - this time.

People who own homes don't overthrow the governments that issue their land deeds and pay the police who protect them - that's what Freddie Mac says. Maybe people who own a stake in technology don't use it to kill technologists - and don't conspire to destroy what they have struggled to master, to control, to rend unto them that which its master deserves.

Microspace is useless against terrorism, I scribble with 4 minutes left on the clock, oblivious to Linoleum. But it coopts the human tendency to subjugate people, it redirects it to the subjugation of things into our service.

Microspace is the indoor beach - the warm pool with the tiled wade-in area - that invites a three year old to love the water. Once that transaction happens, the quest for speed, for 25 meters of deep water with wave-suppressing lane-markers, and solid, square walls, Paying $10 to dive into a cold chlorinated batch of waves at 6:30 in the morning because you want to.

"Time!" - the first word out of the TA in 3 hours. Shoes, boots, sandals - they are scuffing my linoleum. I blink at the accoustile and florescent skyscape - a prayer to the god of the closed book final.

Microsatellites Vs. Terrorism... vs. my bluebook is what really matters. Nobody's going to fund any of these virtual spacecraft anyway. I drop my exam book on the table thinking - the writing is desperate - but inspired. My doodles may be kind of catchy.

But there's no orbital mechanics, no mass, link, bit, DeltaV or power budget. There's no obvious structure - mechanical or otherwise. I hope, maybe, to have at least complicated the grading curve.

Rick Fletter is president of AeroAstro.

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Microspace Paternity Denied
by Rick Fleeter
Herndon - Jan 9, 2002
I have been introduced occasionally as the father of microspace, as have several of my colleagues. The first time it happened, I allowed myself to bask in the glow of that fantasy for a few seconds. But then my propensity to worry, that is, my immunity to any sense of pride or satisfaction, took over. Paternity is a mixed blessing in these days of DNA profiling and Deadbeat Dads.

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