Saturday, May 1, 2021

Space Race Round 2


In the 1960's the Space Race was all about a competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to be the first to get to the Moon.  At first the Russians were in the lead with the first satellite (Sputnik) and the first manned space flight and orbit of Earth (Yuri Gagarin) the first space walk, the first soft lunar landing of an unmanned space craft, and the first lunar orbiter. But eventually, through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the Americans came from behind with their superior technology and landed the first man (Neil Armstrong) on the moon on July 16, 1969.

While the Russians at that point gave up on putting men on the Moon they didn't give up on the next part of the Space Race which was establishing an orbiting space station. In April, 1971 Salyut 1 was launched and on April 23, 1971 a crew on Soyuz 10 became the first crew to dock with the first orbiting space station. The Salyut space station program would last until 1986 when it was replaced with the Mir space station the first modular space station and one that was assembled in orbit and lasted until 1996 when it started to lose its orbit.

On July 15, 1975 the original Space Race was over with the Russian Soyuz and American Apollo space craft docking together in space in an historic handshake marking the first cooperative international flight. This would eventually lead to the start of a collaborative space program that saw both Russian and American astronauts on board Russian Soyuz and American Space Shuttles to visit the Mir space station. On June 29, 1995 nearly 20 years later an American and Russian space craft were again docked together.

In 1998, after the end of the Mir space station, the first component of the International Space Station (ISS) was launched from Russia and on November 2, 2000 the first long-term residents arrived. Jointly operated by the space agencies of the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, the ISS is made up of many modules, components and labs and is serviced by a variety of space craft including the Russian Soyuz, and the private American SpaceX which replaced the Space Shuttles. Continuously occupied since its inception it maintains an orbit 400 km. above Earth and serves as a laboratory for all sorts of scientific research. But this international partnership may be all coming to an end by 2025 when Russia has said it will be leaving.

There's a new player now in the latest Space Race, which is all about setting up a manned base on the Moon and putting humans on Mars, and that is China. Not allowed to be part of the ISS, China has now launched its own Space Station (CSS) and Russia is a partner. A modular design that will see the core module go into space at the end of April followed by at least 10 more modules and crewed missions over the next year to complete construction by the end of 2022, the CSS will be the world's second fully functioning orbiting space station. It will also support the China Survey Telescope that will be launched afterwards and is expected to have 300X the Hubble Telescope's field of view.  

Perhaps one of the most impressive displays ever of robotic technology was last years Chang'e 5 lunar exploration mission where it was able to send a Lander to the Moon (after separating from a lunar Orbiter) equipped with a drill and scooping device, that gathered samples and put them in a container on the Ascender which then launched from the Moon and did a rendezvous with the Orbiter where it transferred the samples before falling back to the Moon's surface. The Orbiter then returned to Earth with the samples, only the third country to bring back samples from the Moon. A year earlier Chang'e 4 landed a lunar rover on the far side of the Moon and provided the world's first pictures of this part of the Moon's surface. The rover was able to transmit data back to Earth, despite the lack of radio frequencies on the far side, via a dedicated satellite sent earlier to orbit the moon. The landing and data transmission is considered a landmark achievement for human space exploration.

On July 23, 2020 the Chinese sent Tianwen 1, a solar powered robotic spacecraft consisting of an orbiter, lander, and the Zhurong rover, to Mars where it went into orbit around Mars on February 10, 2021. After checking for a suitable landing site it plans to land in May or June and, if the landing is successful, it will be the only country after the U.S. to deploy a rover on Mars. In addition to studying the geology and atmosphere and caching samples, one of the main objectives is to test the technologies required for returning Mars samples back to Earth in a similar way the Moon samples were obtained.

Meanwhile the U.S. rover Perseverance and its helicopter/drone Ingenuity are already on the Martian surface, having landed there on February 18, 2021. They will also be busy collecting samples for later retrieval, looking for past environments capable of supporting life, and testing oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere. The race is on to not only get to Mars, where three countries have now landed spacecraft, but to find a way of living there and getting back to Earth.

The secret will be finding a way to build a propellant plant and a base that is close to an underground water/ice deposit. This will allow for the production of liquid oxygen and methane rocket fuel made out of ice and the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. This is the plan proposed by SpaceX which is testing its Starship for a planned Mars flight in 2024 using a spacecraft that in the meantime can be refueled in space.

In the meantime the U.S. is proceeding with its Artemis program that has the goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024 (nearly 50 years since they last set foot there) and eventually setting up a more permanent presence. Until a lunar Gateway is built (that would serve as a mini space station orbiting the Moon providing communications and short term habitation) humans will be lifted into space onboard an Orion spacecraft which will then meet up with a SpaceX Starship HLS (human landing system) for getting back and forth to the Moon. 

While this second round of the space race may be between China and the U.S. what makes it a little different this time is the participation of private companies like SpaceX. Having demonstrated innovative ways addressing technological problems, they have saved massive amounts of money in the process and opened up new ways of looking at what is possible. Either in partnership with governments or on their own they may be the ones who eventually build the cities on the Moon and Mars.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Big Trees


Recently my hiking group decided to check out the "Temple of Time Grove of Giants" that have been found in the Seymour Valley. These are a collection of Douglas-fir trees that somehow survived the logging in this area 100 years ago and now tower above the second growth hemlock trees that dominate the area. Guided by an old Western Canada Wilderness Committee map fragment that had been posted on the Internet we set off to find these ancient witnesses to the North Shore's history.

The old-growth rainforests of the Pacific Northwest are a mixture of tree species dominated by giant Sitka spruce, western red cedar, hemlock, and Douglas-fir that were hundreds of years old. In 1903 the Hastings Shingle Manufacturing Company set up two mills in the Lynn Valley area due to the abundance of western red cedar growing in the Seymour Valley. Employing simple logging technology they used springboards to get above the butt swell of the cedar trees and cut them down using axes and cross saws.  Trees were bucked and limbed on site and then dragged along skid roads to the mills.

The logging was very selective, with only the best cedar trees taken and other species were left behind. As a result, the Douglas-fir in this particular area continued to grow and in the 1980's were discovered by the tree hunter Ralf Kelman who also campaigned to save them. But it wasn't until 1994 that logging was finally halted in the Seymour Demonstration Forest and the plan to cut down the Temples of Time Grove was shelved. It took until 2002 before logging in all of Greater Vancouver's watersheds was stopped.

After a couple of hours of hiking we came across them and it was amazing. Encountering these giants stretching hundreds of feet into the air that are so big in circumference it took all of us putting our arms together to try and encircle one of them was truly awe inspiring. It's even harder to imagine a forest filled with trees this size. Such magnificent organisms and it's sad to think in the old days we cut them down without any thought. 

Equally impressive are the old cedar stumps with their springboard notches that stand like tombstones in the new forest growing around them. The hard labour that went into cutting them down is also hard to imagine. It will be a long time, if ever, before anyone sees cedar trees like that again though there are still a few misshapen ones that were left behind to give us some idea.

Only the Redwood and Giant Sequoia trees in California are bigger and taller than the trees in the Pacific Northwest. Western Red Cedar grows to well over 200 feet in height and up to 20 feet in diameter and Douglas-fir to over 300 feet in height and 9 feet in diameter and these trees can live for over a 1,000 years. Life doesn't get any bigger than these trees and what a unique pleasure it was to get up and close with them.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Ghosts In The Zoo


The other day I was walking through Stanley Park exploring the remnants of the depressing, old zoo that used to be there and came across the polar bear pit. Such a sad looking and miserable enclosure that once held up to five polar bears transplanted here from Hudson Bay. The zoo also had penguins, monkeys and seals amongst other animals but the polar bears were the main attraction until it closed in 1994. Tuk, the oldest polar bear, stayed on until 1997 when he finally died of pneumonia.

The exhibit opened in 1962 and, like the rest of the zoo, it was poorly designed and hardly provided any sort of natural environment for its inhabitants. Contrast this with the modern award winning facility at the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg where the 10 acre Journey to Churchill exhibit hosts orphaned polar bears in a setting that includes muskox, wolves, and seals. The animals roam around in semi-authentic landscapes of forest, tundra and ice including a salt water pool for the polar bears and seals to swim in that also provides an underwater viewing tunnel for the tourists.

Next door to the old Vancouver Zoo is the Vancouver Aquarium which opened its doors in 1956 and in 1967 had a killer whale, named Skana, on display for 13 years. The pathetically small tanks to hold this and other killer whales, a false killer whale, and various beluga whales kept increasing in size and number but were never big enough and couldn't hope to replicate any sort of natural environment for the cetaceans. Mercifully in 2019 the federal government finally outlawed the keeping of whales in aquariums though by then all of Vancouver's whales had already died of various causes.

The whole issue of zoos and aquariums to keep animals in captivity for the viewing pleasure of humans is losing its appeal worldwide though there does seem to be support for facilities that are for rehabilitation or if an animal is too injured to be released into the wild. But there are no end of heartbreaking stories from zoos around the world where the animals are being mistreated or their lives are a misery. The most recent was Kaavan, dubbed the world's loneliest elephant, that was finally rescued from a zoo in Pakistan and moved to a sanctuary in Cambodia thanks to the assistance of Cher.

Meanwhile back in Canada we have the world's coldest elephant, Lucy, living in a zoo in Edmonton that refuses to move her to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, and the happy reunion of the four elephants from the Calgary zoo that were re-united at a zoo in Washington, D.C. when officials belatedly realized it wasn't nice to separate animals that have been together for years. 

Intelligent mammals like whales and elephants have complicated kinship arrangements not to mention close ties to their environment and one can only wonder how they feel about being suddenly uprooted from what they know and being taken away to some alien location. The same probably goes for other creatures so why this obsession with trying to tame the wild? We need to leave it alone and protect whatever is left of nature. If you want to see these magnificent creatures find some sustainable way to see them in their own environment, not some manufactured one.

While creatures like Tuk and Skana may have brought joy to thousands and, in the process, created the awareness that has led to various preservation efforts or their respective species, it came at the cost of their freedom. When most female killer whales live for 50+ years Skana died at the age of 18 without having any offspring. Tuk lived to 37 when most polar bears live for only 25 years but his life was sad, lonely, and pitiful. Now it's just his ghost that prowls around the deserted enclosure.  

Monday, February 1, 2021

No Place To Run To No Place To Go


What is it with Vancouver, and practically every other major city in North America, that they can't provide enough decent public toilets? It's a universal human need that has existed since humans started living together yet it's been systematically ignored as if it will somehow just go away. But it's not going away, and every day we put off addressing the issue only adds to everyone's frustration as they try to hold it in.

The deteriorating homeless situation in Vancouver magnifies this problem with thousands of people now living in makeshift camps, tents, and doorways that of course have no washroom facilities. This means they end up using playgrounds, private gardens, parks, or the streets and alleys to relieve themselves.  An absence of public toilets means an absence of hygiene. 

The Vancouver Parks Board does have a variety of public washrooms in most but not all of its parks but they aren't open 24/7 and they are geared towards people using the parks themselves. Some are more appealing than others both in terms of appearance and cleanliness but most are in need of a serious upgrade. Their average age is over 60 years old and their outdated design offers poor accessibility, comfort, and safety to anyone using them.

The public transit situation is even more shocking. There are more than 50 stations along the rapid transit route alone and not one has a public washroom and, of course, there are no toilets on the trains themselves. With rides that can easily last over an hour this can make for a very uncomfortable situation for some passengers but clearly Translink doesn't care about its customers either.

The cost of maintaining public washrooms is often cited as an excuse for doing nothing and lately there have been some efforts to bring in automated self-cleaning toilets that even offer advertising as a way of offsetting the cost. But the high cost of these overengineered toilets ($500,000.00+) and the fact they were too comfortable and thus attracted people wanting privacy for doing drugs and engaging in prostitution was one reason Seattle got rid of the ones they had originally purchased. 

Another solution (at least as a temporary one) would be to install a network of Porta-Potty or Honeybucket style chemical toilets throughout the city and at every Skytrain station. Self contained units that don't require any plumbing connections, they can be placed just about anywhere and the contractor is responsible for all the cleaning and emptying of the sewage tank. However, at approximately $200.00 per day per toilet the cost is quite high.

Enter the Portland Loo. This simple, indestructible design that discourages it being used for anything except what it's meant for, prevents crime, is easy to clean and maintain, and is inexpensive to operate. For these reasons it's catching on with cities everywhere. At approximately $100,000.00 each we could have two of these at every Skytrain station for $10 million and for another $10 million spread 100 of them around key locations in the City which would more than double the public washrooms we have now.

The Portland Loo is just one example of how the lack of public toilets could be addressed and maybe it would finally get the politicians to say to the people that it's worth adding say 1% a year to the property tax bill to pay for something we all need. For larger facilities we could even have a design competition that added more esthetics and style. But whether it is a utilitarian solution or something grander we can't stick with the status quo where there's no place to go.