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United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

Start getting excited: tomorrow is a big day in space adventuring!  As I write this, last minute preparations are being made on a mighty United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Not only does the rocket contain a tiny cubesat with the Planetary Society Solar Sail, it is also launching the not-very-secret Air Force robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (currently the world’s only known operational space plane program—each robot lander can spend years in space working on classified missions).

Just tailgatin' in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

Just tailgatin’ in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

All of this amazing stuff, along with 9 other cubesats will be riding into space via the Atlas rocket’s second stage—a next generational launch platform evocatively known as “The Centaur.” According to news sites, the launch window for this mission is Wednesday [May 20th ,2015] from 10:45 a.m. ET and 2:45 p.m.  You can watch live on webcam (but remember lots of things can push a mission back).

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I would be live-blogging this extravaganza, but I have my own mission tomorrow morning: relaunching my imploded career. I will be putting on my navy suit and heading off to the temp company.  Presumably the great masters have some tedious administrative tasks for me to perform and they will not hurl me into the endless black void like little X-37B (although given today’s economy, who can really say?)

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Wish everyone luck! Hopefully there will be no Russian-style crashing and burning with either venture…

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé!

The Minotaur I rocket launches from Wallops on November 19, 2013

The Minotaur I rocket launches from Wallops on November 19, 2013

Last night, the United States simultaneously fired 29 satellites into orbit at one time from a Minotaur I rocket which lifted up from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at approximately 8:15 PM EST.  The launch was visible to viewers hundreds of miles from the launching site.  The main payload of the rocket was the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3, which measures various aspects of the launch and monitors the nature of outer space in an attempt to improve future satellite launches.  The 28 other satellites were “microsatellites” designed by various companies, universities, and other entities to be as small and inexpensive as possible.  One of the small “cubesats” was even put together by a magnet high school from Northern Virginia.  Since the rocket launched from Wallops, it was visible across the Northeast as it streaked into orbit (although not by me since I was at a poetry reading at Dumbo—even if I had been outside there were bridges, skyscrapers, and looming edifices in every direction).

Dangit! Launch another one, Air Force, I swear I'll pay better attention!

Dangit! Launch another one, Air Force, I swear I’ll pay better attention!

The aggressive drive and single minded focus which bees and wasps bring to creating and defending their hives have long drawn the attention of warriors, rulers, and merchants.  There is a long history of bees as heraldic logos, military insignia, and as corporate logos and or mascots. Additionally, bees and hornets are surprisingly popular in the world of sports.  Here is a miniature gallery of bees used as insignias or as mascots throughout the ages.

The Coat of Arms of the Barberini Family

The Barberini were a bloodthirsty Italian aristocratic house from Florence.

The Papal Insignia of Urban VIII

The Barberini reached the apex of their power in the 17th century when Maffeo Barberini ascended to the throne of Saint Peter as Urban VIII (who was noted for melting down classic bronzes and having the birds in the Vatican garden poisoned).

The Imperial Coat of Arms of France

Napoleon was also a fan of industrious bees. Closely looking at his coat of arms reveals that the red cloak framing the eagle shield is embroidered with bees.  Not only do the bees represent hard work, ferocity, and fecundity, they are meant to allude to the golden bees/cicadas found in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric I, who founded the French throne in 457.

Bees and hornets are also favored by more contemporary soldiers.

My personal favorite of all bee-themed logos is the Seabees logo which was designed in the war year of 1942 and has remained unchanged since then.  The Seabees are the Naval Construction forces, who were (and are) expected to build critical military infrastructure like airstrips and docks even under fire.   Their motto is “Construimus, Batuimus”  (“We build, We fight!”) and the pugnacious bee on their logo reflects this with his machine gun, wrench, and hammer.

In the US Air Force one of the prominent all-weather, multi-role fighter jets is the F/A-18 Hornet and a number of badges represent the fighting elan of the men and women who fly and service them (like this badge showing a hornet beating up a tomcat).

Beyond the manor and the battlefield, there are numerous corporate bees and hornets.

The New Orleans hornets are a professional basketball team. The fierce hornet has been elided with the city’s trademark fleur de lis.

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The London Wasps apparently play rugby.

The honey nut cheerio bee has been hard-selling honey flavored oat cereal for General Mills for long years.  Here the bee is pictured wobbling in space time as he annoys a professional wrestler.

Green Hornet Logo

The Green hornet is a comic book hero who dresses up like a stinging insect and makes his Asian manservant fight crime.

The Bumblebee Man from the Simpsons

The Bumble Bee man is a long-suffering Mexican-American TV star in the cartoon world of the Simpsons.   The Bee man finally brings us to real world bee costumes which I think largely speak for themselves.

The US Air Force's Automated Space Shuttle X-37B (US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom/File)

The final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery is currently underway.  Additionally, the X-37B, the “secret” robot space shuttle operated by United States Air Force, just concluded a successful seven month mission last December. The Air Force is primed to launch a second X-37B robot shuttle at 3:39 p.m. (EST) today. This flurry of activity leads to general reflection concerning spaceplanes, crafts designed to operate in outer space, fly back through earth’s atmosphere, and land on ground.  With two in orbit at the same time spaceplanes are now more in use then ever…while simultaneously fading away.

First let’s look at NASA’s space shuttle program. Here’s what NASA’s website has to say about the Discovery:

It’s certainly earned its retirement. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact. After 38 missions to date, and more than 5,600 trips around the Earth, Discovery has carried satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and sent the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the Sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, and it delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.

The objective of the current mission is to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station. Along with water, new personnel, sundry modules, and widgets, Discovery is also delivering Robonaut 2.  Despite the misleading number, Robonaut 2 is the first humanoid robot in outer space.

Robonaut 2--wait, what?

When the mission is complete the Discovery is scheduled to go off to some museum. The entire shuttle program is winding down: the program was supposed to end in 2010 but international obligations compelled NASA to tack on a few missions in 2011.  Endeavor is already on the pad for what may be its final flight and Atlantis is on standby.  Enterprise (which never made it to space) is already at the Smithsonian. And, of course, Challenger and Columbia are both gone, lost along with their heroic crews in our first doddering steps into space.

Space Shuttle Discovery Lifting Off (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images North America)

The shuttles seem so much a part of our culture that it is hard to recognize how revolutionary they were in the seventies and eighties (and still are). It’s true that they are shockingly dangerous but the technology used to create them pushed the limits of materials technology a long way.  For example the thermal shields of the shuttle protect the orbiters from re-entry temperatures that could otherwise reach as high as 1,650 °C (about 3,000 °F), well above the melting point of steel. The program also advanced rocketry by leaps and bounds.

The American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran

The shuttles were the first spaceplanes to go into orbit.  The only other spaceplanes that are known to have done so were the unmanned Soviet Bor-4 test craft, the Soviet Buran (a space-shuttel knock-off scrapped during the Soviet meltdown after one successful manned fligth), and the OTV-1 and OTV-2. Both of these latter vehicles are Boeing X-37B robot shuttles used by the United States Air Force to test (note to the Air Force and Boeing, please give your robot space planes cooler names).  The X-37B is a automated shuttle with a payload about the size of a Ford Ranger pickup.  Originally a NASA program which was scrapped for budget reasons the robot shuttle was picked up by DARPA and built by the Air Force which claims to use it to test guidance, navigation and control systems.  Since the OTV-1’s mission (which was tracked by amateur astronomers) took the craft over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and China, it is reasonable to speculate that the craft may have reconnaissance purposes as well.


There are a number of suborbital spaceplanes which have managed to reach above the Kármán line but were incapable of going into orbit. Lately private companies have been jockeying to make more of these space hoppers and conventional wisdom asserts that the market will step in and deliver the next generation of spaceplanes. Hopefully private innovators will come up with some bright ideas. Budget and technical constraints have lead NASA to scrap its plans for ramjet scramjet and spaceplanes. There isn’t much else on the drawing board that we know about right now (other than the Japanese Space Program’s origami airplanes which are seemingly designed to be tossed into space for fun pictured below) .  The foreseeable future apparently belong to rockets.

The Japanese Space Program's 29-gram origami shuttle made of treated ricepaper--the future of spaceplanes?

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