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Kliper illustration
Russia’s proposed “Kliper” manned spacecraft to replace the Soyuz. (credit: RSC Energia)

From Russians to Berserkers

The last thing the world needs is another space blogger (or worse, a partisan jackass space blogger—we have too many of them already), which is one reason why The Space Review is such a valuable resource. At its best, The Space Review provides an opportunity for longer, factual, and insightful essays that their authors have presumably (hopefully) put some thought into, rather than the typical blogasm. Nevertheless, sometimes there are ideas that do not deserve a full Space Review article. Here are three. Indulge me.

Energia going bankrupt?

On July 31 Reuters reported that Russia’s Energia Corporation is facing possible bankruptcy. (Reuters apparently got the story from Russia’s Interfax news service.) This follows upon the ouster of Energia’s president Nikolai Sevastyanov in late June. In an obvious dig at Sevastyanov, new company chairman Vitaly Lopota was quoted as saying, “We intend to introduce emergency administration for the corporation because the financial idealism that the previous corporation leadership had was leading not to flights to the moon, but to bankruptcy.” (A minor sidenote: the Reuters/CNN article mistranslated the original Russian, quoting Lopota as saying that past actions had “led to” bankruptcy rather than were leading to it.)

Sevastyanov’s problem was that, like several Energia directors before him, he had his head in the stars rather than on the bottom line for his company.

If you’re a regular reader of The Space Review, this should not be that surprising. As noted here last March, Energia was not in good managerial shape and there were widespread rumors in Russia as far back as December that Sevastyanov’s days in charge of that company were numbered (see “Death throes and grand delusions”, The Space Review, March 5, 2007). He was involved in a bitter dispute with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. He managed to last until June before getting pushed out.

Sevastyanov’s problem was that, like several Energia directors before him, he had his head in the stars rather than on the bottom line for his company. Unlike its rival Khrunichev, after the Cold War Energia had never been very good at making the conversion to capitalism, and the company long had a habit of embracing massive and unrealistic projects instead of things that would earn them hard cash. Sevastyanov was pushing hard for a replacement for the Soyuz, an idea that makes some sense. But he also had weirder ideas, like mining helium-3 on the lunar surface to power Russia’s fusion reactors.

Although it has been little-reported in the Western space press, the Russian space program has some severe problems. Considering that they are close partners in the International Space Station program, it is in NASA’s best interests that Energia be both financially and managerially stable.

Incidentally, a new book on the development of the large Energia rocket and the Buran space shuttle is due to be released in the United States this month. Called Energiya-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle, by Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis, it will be the definitive source of information on that subject and is bound to contain much information on the Energia Corporation.

The saga of Helo 66

But while patting myself on the back for reporting on the problems at Energia, I also need to correct and amend some things that I wrote about the U.S. Navy SH-3 Sea King helicopter that recovered several of the early Apollo astronaut crews (see “The last flight of Helo 66” and “Helo 66 revisited”, The Space Review, June 25 and July 9, 2007).

That helicopter, as I reported, crashed and sank at sea in 1974. In two previous articles about it I provided the names of the officers who were onboard the aircraft that day, including the pilot who later died of his injuries. One reader chastised me for not also reporting the names of the two enlisted crewmembers that were aboard. I mistakenly thought that I did not have their names, but they were in fact listed in the official accident report included in the first article. They are Peter Charles Cassidy and Brady Wayne Turner.

Considering that they are close partners in the International Space Station program, it is in NASA’s best interests that Energia be both financially and managerially stable.

A former SH-3 naval aviator also contacted me to correct some of my misstatements about the Sea King. It turns out that the Sea King could indeed land—and float—on the water. Calm seas were required, but when learning how to fly the Sea King, Navy pilots would take the helicopter to a lake or designated body of water and set it down on the surface and could even do this with the helicopter near gross weight. They generally kept the rotor turning because it provided a gyroscopic effect that kept the helicopter stable, but that large boat-like fuselage that made the Sea King so unusual did indeed provide buoyancy on the water.

This aviator also added that US Navy Sea Kings were equipped with flotation bags that could be triggered in an emergency, or when the pilot believed they were needed for a water landing. When I write a more detailed description of the helicopter for a print article, I’ll correct these mistakes.

A good life (not goodlife)

Author Fred Saberhagen died at the end of June. He was 77.

Several authors have written for The Space Review about the crossover between science fiction and spaceflight. The connections are numerous: science fiction authors and television shows have influenced people to undertake careers in spaceflight, and also contributed to unrealistic expectations about what spaceflight should be. Occasionally people involved in space engineering, science, or activism have written science fiction books themselves. There is probably little connection between Saberhagen and our current space program, but he followed in the fine science fiction tradition of taking then-current ideas about space exploration and asking “what if?”

Saberhagen’s most famous invention was (were?) the Berserkers, which he wrote about in numerous short stories and several books starting in the 1960s. The Berserkers were classic high-concept sci-fi: giant self-replicating machines, some the size of small planets, that had been left over from an ancient war. Developed by a long-extinct extraterrestrial race, they viewed their mission as the destruction of all life because life reversed the natural entropic order of the universe. Although unemotional, they were also vicious, and in Saberhagen’s hands they were also terrifying. For instance, their speech was a devil’s brew of words recorded from their numerous prisoners and victims, often by torture.

The Berserkers are part of the blurry territory between science fiction and space exploration theory and have their origins in the Drake Equation, Frank Drake’s attempt to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe. Drake postulated that even if only a tiny fraction of stars had habitable planets and even if only a tiny fraction of those could support the development of intelligent life, then the universe should be teeming with life. But the biggest problem with the Drake Equation was the Fermi Paradox, which actually predated it (see “The other side of the Fermi paradox”, The Space Review, February 19, 2007). Simply stated, the Fermi Paradox asks why, if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, it has not already reached us (it is often neatly summarized as “where are they?”).

Hungarian-born mathematician and physicist John von Neumann originally proposed the idea of self-replicating machines that could make copies of themselves. Other theorists then explored the idea of using such machines to explore space, noting that they offered a method for eventually spreading the influence (if not the actual presence) of intelligent life throughout the galaxy or even the universe. Each “Von Neumann probe” could build multiple copies of itself as long as it had the resources. But this idea then posed a challenge for the Fermi Paradox: if Von Neumann machines are possible and have been built, then given the immense age of the universe they should have already reached Earth in some fashion. (A decent overview of this discussion can be found on Wikipedia, of all places, although it is missing some important references to Von Neumann’s original work.)

The Berserkers represent the “hostile answer” to the Fermi paradox. Whereas most of the discussion about the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox has an idealist tinge—i.e. isn’t life and the universe wonderful?—the Berserkers illustrate that we might not like a universe teaming with life because there is a possibility it might want to kill us.

There was a time when discussions of the Drake Equation, the Fermi Paradox, and Von Neumann machines were vibrant within some space science and exploration circles. But today those debates seem more muted.

Saberhagen cleverly postulated that Von Neumann machines could be developed for military purposes, and then posed that they could also easily run amok. It was not a totally original idea; technology running out of control has long been a staple of science fiction (see: Frankenstein’s Monster; see also: “gray goo”), but Saberhagen threw in a lot of clever elements. For instance, one common characteristic of his alien races was that they became more peaceful as they became older, but this had the unfortunate effect of rendering them vulnerable to Berserker attack. It was only humanity’s relative lack of maturity—and tendency toward violence—that enabled humans to beat back the Berserkers. Saberhagen also apparently stated that the Berserkers themselves were not Von Neumann machines, but were part of a Von Neumann machine ecology.

Saberhagen’s short stories tended to be better than his Berserker novels, and he was particularly good at developing interesting and unusual ways for his protagonists to destroy the killer machines. One of his common themes was how an apparent human weakness could prove to be a strength useful for fighting the machines. The machines had no sense of morals or remorse and any humans unlucky enough to be captured by them would be tortured or enslaved. The machines divided humans into two categories: “badlife” (i.e. hostile) and “goodlife” (i.e. collaborators or traitors). Unfortunately, Saberhagen seemed more interested in writing about the Berserkers anecdotally rather than building up a coherent alternate universe and timeline, and therefore probably undercut his ability to develop a devoted fan base. But he was clearly influential on many other writers in television and literature and Star Trek’s The Borg clearly owe many of their characteristics to his writing.

There was a time when discussions of the Drake Equation, the Fermi Paradox, and Von Neumann machines were vibrant within some space science and exploration circles. But today those debates seem more muted. They still take place, but lack the passion that they once evoked. Today, discussions of extraterrestrial life by space scientists are much more about biology and field work than theory. That’s probably how it should be. But Mr. Saberhagen, rest his soul, probably would have found that rather boring.