Why Blast Off Into Space?

The fantasy of rising above the surface of the Earth and flying out among the stars is as old as the human imagination itself. After Marco Polo brought back Chinese gunpowder to the 13th century Europeans, they were able to militarize it into firearms, and the technology of chemically-propelled ballistics took off so that by the early 20th century rockets intended to fully penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and drift out into Outer Space were being visualized and tested.

William Leitch in 1861 and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903 expressed the idea of using rockets to enable human spaceflight. From 1920 Robert Goddard proposed improvements to rocket design, and in 1926 built and launched the first modern rocket. That modernity was marked by the first use of a converging-diverging exhaust tube — known as a de Laval nozzle — which enabled the hot exhaust gases emitted by the combusting rocket fuel to convert their heat energy into outward unidirectional motion at supersonic speed: thrust!

But with the exception of tinkerers like Goddard, rockets were used as military weapons — artillery — most dramatically by Nazi Germany from 1943 with its V2 ballistic missile rocket-bombs. The American space program began in 1945 with the use of captured German V2 rockets to send cameras and scientific probes into the upper atmosphere. The USSR’s independent space program began in the 1950s, making a dramatic breakthrough — shocking Americans — with the lofting of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, which was launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. It orbited for three weeks before its batteries died and then orbited silently for two months before it fell back into the atmosphere on the 4th of January 1958.

The major thrust of both American and Soviet rocket development throughout the 1950s and 1960s was to construct intercontinental ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads, and have such capability presented as a threat display to deter aggression by other technologically advanced and militarily powerful adversaries: the Cold War. Putting men as the payloads in such large rockets and blasting them into Earth orbit, and eventually out to the Moon, was primarily a flagrant display to all, signaling the possession of awesome military power. Science exploration was a minor byproduct of the space race, but ultimately some of that scientific curiosity yielded the most beneficial results from the entire rocketry endeavor.

Now, 52 years after Neil Armstrong first set a human foot on the Moon, propelled by American public funding, at least three of our attention-seeking Billionaire Boys are competing to burn up disposable bundles of their money to launch themselves into space joyrides, and to then exploit the technology they have paid to have built as the basis of “space tourism” businesses.

On Tuesday, 20 July 2021, Jeff Bezos and three others were blasted in his rocket up to an elevation of 106 km above the surface of the Earth, for a two-way trip totaling 10 minutes and 10 seconds. To some this is a laudable achievement of the free market system, while to others it is a pathetic expansion of conspicuous consumption to a new exorbitant level. Many ask: could the billions extracted from the labor of Bezos’s exploited and precarious workforce not have been better spent to alleviate hunger and homelessness?, and could the massive amount of chemical energy expended to pull off this stunt not have been better used with much greater efficiency to power broadly beneficial purposes on the surface of the Earth? But such questions mistake applying standards of human solidarity and social responsibility to seek understanding billionaire’s egotistical behavior. Here, I will provide one answer to the energy question.

The minimum energy needed to loft any mass up to 106 km above the surface of the Earth is 1,022,842.066 Joules per kilogram (J/kg). So, for the total energy expenditure in any specific case, multiply the mass of the fully loaded rocket (in kg) by 1,022,842.066 Joules/kg. One joule is the energy required to lift a medium-sized tomato up 1 meter (3 ft 3 in), assuming the tomato has a mass of 101.97 grams (3.597 oz). Lofting a mass up to 106 km above the surface of the Earth requires as much energy as lifting it only 1 meter above the Earth’s surface 104,265 times.

Outer Space is considered to begin at elevation 100 km, which is called the Von Karman Line (after a renowned aerodynamicist). Satellites in Low Earth Orbit have elevations between 180 km and 2,000 km; in Mid Earth Orbit, 2,000 km to 35,780 km elevation; in Geosynchronous Orbit at 35,780 km elevation; in High Earth Orbit beyond 35,780 km; and the Orbit of the Moon occurs at a distance of 378,032 km from the Earth’s surface.

It requires 9.81 Joules of energy to lift a 1 kg mass 1 meter above the surface of the Earth (or 9.81 of those 3.597 ounce tomatoes, all at once). In terms of “g’s” pulling a mass “down” toward the center of the Earth, the g-force at the surface of the Earth is 1g, the g-force at 106 km is 0.968g, the g-force at 180 km is 0.946g, the g-force at 2,000 km is 0.579g, the g-force at 35,780 km is 0.023g, and the g-force at 378,032 km (the distance to the Moon) is negligible at 0.0002747g.

Satellites in stable orbits around the Earth need an additional energy to accelerate them up to an orbital velocity, and it is this boost to lateral momentum, in combination with the “centrifugal” (radial) pull by Earth’s gravity, that results in the curved trajectory that describes the satellite’s stable orbit, which can be either circular or elliptical.

I do not know the weight of Bezos’s rocket (I have not seen it published), but IF I assume it weighed as much as a fully loaded Boeing 707 jet airplane, 150,000 kg, then the total (minimum) energy to lift it up to 106 km would have been 1.534×10^11 Joules = 153.4 gigajoules (GJ). Whatever the actual weight was, lofting it to an elevation of 106 km requires at least 1.023 megajoules/kilogram (MJ/kg).

I am guessing that small rockets, perhaps comparable to Bezos’s, could weigh half as much (or less) as a Boeing 707 airplane (~10s of thousands of kg), and I am certain that Bezos’s rocket was much smaller than the the Saturn V rockets that lofted the Apollo Moon missions, and which initially weighed about 2.8 million kg.

The real issue is that blasting stuff up into space — away from Earth and against its gravity — is immensely energy intensive. Given that one has that energy in the first place, why use/waste inordinate amounts of it to loft small payloads into space? For a few items like weather and GPS satellites, space telescopes, and tiny robotic planetary probes, I think it is worthwhile for the expansion of scientific knowledge and the physical improvement of social conditions. But for almost all else, and most especially manned space flight, it is the total waste of space junk littering militarism and propaganda.

And now, symptomatic of our dysfunctional economics, manned space flight has also become just another item of supremely exclusive and very showy personal conspicuous consumption. As Eeyore would gloomily intone in the Winnie-the-Pooh books: “Pathetic.”

A short report in PDF form is freely available to anyone interested in the details of my calculations, at


Deadly Collapse Of Illusions In Miami

Here is video of the Miami beachside condominium that collapsed at ~1 AM on 24 June 2021 (https://youtu.be/KR29pLccutY). There are many news stories about this now.

An engineering professor at Florida International University has used satellite data on ground elevation (a measurement technique used since at least the late 1970s) to write about the steady sinking of land in Miami, including the site of the condo, since 1990. There is a lot of beachside construction in Florida on landfill. This condo was actually built on sturdier ground (I’m guessing an ancient barrier island), but landfill is right next to it on the west side, where other similar buildings are located (and thus a bit further from the shoreline).

In 2018, a building inspector engineer issued a warning that there was serious damage to the building stemming from an inadequacy of foundation integrity. Nothing was done. In another report, I read that the development-friendly local and state authorities had freed the Miami real estate industry from “excessive” regulations by only requiring building inspections every 40 years! (I find this hard to believe, but it was a news report posted on the internet).

By now it is clear that the cause of the collapse was the softening of the ground under the building by the infiltration of seawater over the years since the building’s construction. Because such a large building is very heavy, especially in comparison to a simple beachside bungalow, the weight of the structure put tremendously higher downward pressure on the ground below its foundation, diminishing the integrity of the increasingly soaked soil, and thus speeding its ultimate loss of cohesion.

Now, some words about structural stability in a gravitational field. Earth’s gravity arises from its huge mass (compared to anything else humans are used to) and it points toward the Earth’s center, which means “down.”

Buildings, bridges and many other structures erected by humans on the surface of the Earth are designed to remain stable by having rigid vertical structural members (i.e., columns) to transmit the weight of the structure into the ideally “solid” ground below, which in turn distributes the pressure of the building’s weight (as mechanical stress) into the body of Planet Earth. The contact zone between the building and the Earth is usually a cross-braced foundation structure.

Those weight-bearing vertical supports are cross-braced by horizontal rigid structural members (i.e., beams, and in stronger designs by triangular frames: trusses). This way the entire building has the structural integrity of a “block”: the Earth holds it up, and its cross-bracing holds it together.

Essential to the building’s stability is the integrity of the earth below it: its solidity. When that solidity is lost, such as by water infiltration softening, and becomes nonuniform, then the building can begin to sink in a lopsided manner. Such tilting means that now gravitation forces no longer align perfectly with “vertical” columns (since they are tilted) but also has “lateral” components of force directed along the cross-bracing (which is also tilted).

Such new lateral forces transmitted by the cross members against the sides of the columns add a sideways momentum now pushing to tilt the building over, and are also forces working to tear the building apart from top to bottom.

At some point of building tilt, such unevenness of the distribution of gravitation stress throughout the structure, now no longer strictly vertical, puts more tensile or compressive stress (depending on the orientation of the member) than one or more of the structural members can sustain without buckling; or some of the bolted, riveted or welded joints between members can sustain to keep from ripping open.

Such structural failures remove pathways for the building’s gravitational stress to find its way to ground. So the structural members of the building’s frame that are still connected see an increase in the stress they must contain and transmit to Earth to hold up the building.

This takes those still intact members and joints more quickly toward their failure points, and the weakest among them give way. In this way an accelerating cascade of structural failures occurs, and the entire building can seem to suddenly “deflate” and collapse.

Such a collapse will be seen to propagate through the building as a wave of “deflation” from the regions of first failures to last failures, which, depending on the configuration of the undermining forces, can be left-to-right or vice-versa, and bottom-to-top or vice-versa.

The World Trade Center Towers building collapses of 11 September 2001 occurred from the top down: the dynamic force of collapsing mass above any given floor (the conversion of gravitational potential energy into mass acceleration) being beyond the yield strength of the vertical columns and cross-bracing joints at each floor-level, which were only designed — with a significant safety factor — to withstand the static stress imposed by gravity. The collapse of the smaller World Trade Center Building 7 proceeded from the left to the right because of a buckling of a column weakened by fire softening.

The Miami condominium collapse of 24 June 2021 progressed from bottom to top, first on the “left” side, and then on the now laterally unsupported “right” side (as seen in the video captured by a surveillance camera).

I would guess that what is happening now in Miami — and elsewhere — is a scramble to point fingers assigning blame and to evade responsibility; people seeking to sue somebody for losses of relatives, property and illusions; to get insurance payments, or to avoid paying them; to protect their money, investments, property and advantages of location; and to run away from their fears and hide from facing up to the realities of implacable Climate Change (in the form of sea level rise for Miami) plowing steadily into the American “good life.”

Climate Change is like an enormous steamroller that is inching slowly but implacably along the open road of our projected expectations, to roll over and flatten our comfortable situations.

Since we are all “cemented in place” in those personal comfort situations, that steamroller is bit by bit squashing us: first ‘here’ then ‘there’; some by sea level rise; some by hurricanes razing all; some by wildfire; some by deepening and eternal heat and drought; some by waves of disease pathogens sprung from out of formerly deep recesses in the wild; some by the increasing withdrawal of food availability; and some by the infighting all this sparks among us and that causes casualties from our war with ourselves.

First we lose our illusions, then we lose our money, and finally we lose our lives.

Those who refuse to face reality and relinquish their illusions will cause the most damage to their fellow human beings, by being rabidly competitive, as they slide down the cascade of suffering longer and ever obsessed to the death with their unrelieved anxieties of avoiding losses and pain. Those who jettison their illusions and face reality will a least gain the comfort of finding the company of similar people.

Even as the steamroller inches forward toward us, for everyone “the future is uncertain, and the end is always near.” One can pin oneself to an obsession with “the end,” and its avoidance; or one can open oneself to an appreciation for the processes of life, and to the sharing of such appreciation.

Climate Change is now our great teacher, and its lessons range from stark terror to transcendence. We have no choice but to live out those lessons, but we do have some choice in which of those coming experiences we can aim our personal selves to.


Photos from the news story (series) linked in two comments, below:


The beachfront looks like an ancient barrier island to me (my guess). The “flats” behind it look like landfill (“reclaimed land”). I suspect all this land is “wet” below a shallow depth from the surface. I also suspect that depth has been decreasing with the sea level rise over previous decades, and which continues.


27 June 2021, using Picture #1 for reference:

The surveillance camera that took the video of the collapse is located at the left-most, furthest ‘up’ seaward-side corner of the blue pool seen to the left in this photo, just below the large area of greenery. The camera was pointed diagonally across that pool, straight at the central portion of the building that collapsed. That central portion collapsed first, from the side closer to the surveillance camera and then dragging its backside (the side furthest from the surveillance camera) down. To me it seems that “the bottom dropped out” and not that the roof collapsed and pancaked down pulverizing the building. After that central section was all down, the squarish tower portion closest to the beach tottered, twisted ‘slightly’ clockwise as viewed in this picture, and then also collapsed by “the bottom dropping out.” You can see the higher pile of rubble left by that tower section collapse. I would guess that the section of ground (subsurface) between that outer tower section and the part of the building still standing, and aligned parallel to the shoreline, is the area of greatest weakness and loss of integrity. It is also possible (as others are commenting) that there had been a weakening of the reinforcing steel inside the concrete columns of the building because of the corrosive action of salty sea air and underground flooding since 1981 when the building was constructed. The conclusions of the forensic engineering reports, which will doubtless take many months to finally arrive at, will be interesting — if they are not distorted by CYA.


A Simple Explanation of Black Holes


A Simple Explanation of Black Holes

Louis N. Proyect:

I was trying to follow a one-hour lecture on Black Holes [podcast] but gave up after fifteen minutes and switched to Jay Leno’s garage to hear what he had to say about the 1955 Packard Caribbean.

Manuel García, Jr.:

Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” is a pretty good book about it, for the general public.

Theoretically, Black Holes are a consequence of Einstein’s General Relativity (the effect of gravity on space-time): with enough concentrated mass, and insufficient thermal-nuclear energy generation (a star uses up its “fuel”) to keep that mass puffed out, its mutual gravity draws it into a spherical center, and since mass-gravity “curves” space-time (an effect that diminishes with radial distance from the center) and since space-time curvature is expressed/observed as the bending of light rays; at a particular radial distance (the Schwarzschild Radius) light rays are curved completely by 360 degrees – into circles.

Light emitted and/or passing by a Black Hole outside the SR is bent (by quite a bit but less than 360 degrees close to the SR, and less so with increasing distance from the SR). Light emitted at distances less than the SR are infinitely bent (curly cues), and never travel beyond the SR – they are trapped. Hence “Black Holes” because no light is emitted from them.

Black Holes can be detected by measuring how light rays from a known distance source are bent on passing (outside the SR) near a Black Hole. When Quantum Mechanics is added to the theoretical description of Black Holes, then more odd possibilities arise having to do with matter popping into and out of existence in the vicinity of the SR, but somehow entangled with mirror quantum interactions inside the Black Hole, and from that Hawking proposed ways for gaining information from inside a Black Hole despite the barrier to (non quantum)) information flow, by the SR.

Hawking also presented a theory that such “quantum flickering” (my term, here) could lead to Black Holes steadily ‘evaporating’ into non-existence; analogous to a soap bubble popping. Hawking’s way of describing it for the public is, naturally, very good; but the math behind it all is massively complicated and above my pay grade.

Louis N. Proyect:

I can’t wrap my head around space-time. When I go to the CVS across the street, it takes about 3 minutes. How can a Manhattan avenue and the time it takes to cross it occupy the same continuum?

Manuel García, Jr.:

Think of it this way, first in 2 space dimensions: imagine a checkerboard of grid lines for length and width, and their intersections “define” points in space, or locations. Maritime navigation uses this idea, where the 2D surface happens to be the surface of a sphere (latitude, longitude).

Now, at any single location (say, your desert island) time proceeds forward from a past to a future (you are always in a “now” that is the experienced part of this ‘perpetual’ stream). So now we imagine our checkerboard having vertical “time lines” piercing the horizontal spatial (2D) plane at each “location.”

Hence, the complete description of the 3D space-time of every location is defined by its x and y coordinates (spatial coordinates, like latitude and longitude) PLUS a time coordinate, t, noting the ‘time” point of whatever event is being denoted for location x-y (e.g., your 70th birthday on your desert island).

George Pal’s 1960 movie of H.G.Wells’ “The Time Machine” presented a beautiful description and use of this concept: the Time Machine could go into the past or the future but always fixed to one spot on Earth.

Now, given our actual (or perceived) 3D spatial world, we then exist in a 4D space-time. It is just impossible to draw a visual image of a 4D grid in the 3D space we experience, or on our 2D papers and art pads. But mathematics can describe 4D with exactitude (as multi-dimensional geometry, and with tensor mathematics).

Now for curvature. If you use a checkerboard quilt as a bedspread (to lay out an x-y grid of straight lines (called a Euclidian Space or Euclidian Geometry) and then place a bowling ball in the middle of it, the quilt will be deformed by the weight of the ball (gravity) and the grid lines near the ball will appear curved — because the originally flat surface they were defined in has been warped out of its original “2D-ness.”

That warping of the originally flat surface has a funnel shape: no warping (which is “down”) far away, and increasing warping as one gets closer to the bowling ball. If you now imagine a 2D (spatial) Black Hole, the funneling becomes increasingly vertical (“plunging”) on approach to the SR until it becomes perfectly vertical at the SR.

So, as light rays are in fact the grid lines forced to remain on the spatial surface, however it is warped, then the grid line at the infinite bottom of the funnel (which occurs at the SR) is a perfect circle, and can never “climb out.”

So now, for 3D space it is impossible to draw gravity-induced warping of space-time (which is 4D: 3 space dimensions, 1 time dimension), but the idea is exactly as described above.

To add more fun to it all, by Einstein’s General Relativity, the curving of light rays is equivalent to a slowing of them (analogous to taking your sports into a curve after racing down the Mulsanne Straight). So, with infinite curvature (the situation at the SR) time becomes infinite: or “stops.” Light rays at or below the SR are in “suspended animation” or “eternity,” they are stuck forever.

Lots of science fiction is based on the idea of the “light cones” centered on the “time axis” piercing our spatial here-and-now, coming to our specific (x,y,z,t) out of the past (“history”), narrowing down from the totality of events of the distant past to the single moment-spot of our specific here-now (x,y,z,t); and projecting into the future with an expanding range of possibilities as one projects into the more distant future.

It is easy enough to find images (sketch representations, cartoons, videos) on the internet of this light-cone limitation of the possible causes of this here-now, and its range of possible future effects.

BTW, the “grid lines” in “surfaces” (forming the coordinate system that maps them out) are called geodesics.

Have fun.

Thanks to Louis N. Proyect for asking good questions, and being patient enough to let the explanation unroll.



Light Cones