Timestream Post: A Note from 10.7.2010

12 12 2010

10/07/2010; 09:04am

It’s October 7th, and in a few moments I’m heading out to the National Archives in Chicago in search of NERVA (the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission program to develop nuclear thermal rockets) material and program files.

As this is another of my digital time-travel experiment messages, I’m sending this far enough out to encompass a time-span necessary to answer my questions…  (As I see it, anyway.  My Nuclear Rocket Program term paper is due in early December.)

What will I find?  Archivists tell me I’m the first to have seriously requested access to these records in nearly three decades.

I’m terribly excited! – the anticipation!

Will I find the photos of phoebus reactors I’m looking for?  Do I unearth management information for my space studies class term paper?  Any surprises in store?

I can’t wait!  =)

Shredding the Library

3 11 2010

A stack of banker's boxes, which represent the remnants of my former paper library.

I was inspired by a recent post from SETI’s Dr. Seth Shostak to say something about my own three-year battle against three-dimensionality.

As a scientist, I’ve (intentionally) tended to collect reference papers and books into a sort of personal technical library.  (I’m not alone here, as Dr. Shostak will attest.)  My library includes excerpts, articles, and papers of note that I return to from time to time to support projects, refresh understanding, or simply that I saved because of the rarity and/or intrinsic value of the material.

This runs headlong against the reality of finite volume and cohabitation.

So, in the interests of reducing clutter at home, I began to digitally scan in every hardcopy paper and sheet of notes I’d been keeping in binders for the last ten years, fighting in vain to find versions that had already been digitized before committing myself to hours by the scanner.

Let me tell you – it takes a long time.  (I began in 2006 or 2007 and still have a tower of boxes to get through, if that’s any indication.)

Having said that – is it worth it?  Absolutely.  I had no idea just how much time is saved during research or the writing of a paper or article when everything is digitally search-able.  Precious minutes spent scanning bookshelves and thumbing through sheets of paper has been replaced by a couple of mouse clicks and finger strokes across a trackpad.

It’s also turned me from a conventional paranoid data-backup-er into a completely unhinged data-hoarding zealot.  Because I’ve committed myself to my digital library by shredding my original documents after scanning them in, (much like Cortez burning his ships upon reaching America to motivate his crew,) I currently maintain quadruple-redundancy with the digital library… and I might compulsively expand that soon.

But, there’s good news here, too – that even for a data fiend like myself, having multiple redundant data storage systems takes up about as much space on a bookshelf as two full-sized dictionaries.  That sounds impossible as I read that out-loud to myself, but it’s a modern reality.  Cheap data storage has completely overtaken the data “cost” of traditional text-based information.

So, while I lament the thrill of the paper, fire up the shredder and join the 21st Century, my fellow scientists and information-hounds!  Your husbands and wives will thank you.

(-And in a pinch, you can always print out a copy for emergency real-word note-scribbling in the margins.)

Foraging for Nuclear Rocket Secrets

12 10 2010

A NERVA program file at the National Archives in Chicago.

I spent this past Thursday at the National Archives in Chicago as one of the few humans in the last three decades to track down the project files for the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) Program from the 1960s.

National Archives analysis room. Credit: Ben McGee

The experience of using the National Archive was exactly like and completely unlike what I’d imagined, and in both cases it was extraordinarily cool.  The facility was nestled next to a National Guard depot in the thick of Chicago’s South Side.  (Plenty of character there.)  -After involuntarily entering a somewhat stylized, ’60s-looking sleek structure onsite that ended up being the wrong place, (the Federal side,) I found myself through the doors of an inconspicuous red brick building not unlike an annex to any standard university library.

Once inside, the seriousness of the place was palpable.  Much paperwork and many login signatures were required prior to my being able to access any records.  A resource area lined with long tables and power stations stood ready for researchers once inside, and a set of swinging, authorized-personnel-only double doors offered glimpses of an adjacent Radiers-of-the-Lost-Ark-style warehouse filled to the ceiling and as far as the eye could see with shelves of artifacts, documents, photographs – living history.

Box SNPO60 at the National Archives.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission nuclear rocket program has become more than a passing side interest of mine, due in large part to professional decontamination and decommissioning work with which I’ve been a part.

I had only a few hours at the archive, and haven’t yet even had time to go through all of the documents I copied (photographed – no flash.)  Specifically, I was after documentation of program challenges.  NERVA accomplished so much in so little time, and I’m trying to put together what their magic recipe was.  Loose oversight?  Temporarily unlimited funding?  A transformational leadership style?

How were they able to develop nuclear rockets that outperform our best rockets today, do it in only a single decade, and have done it all half a century ago?

More importantly, what can we learn from NERVA, not only about space propulsion technology, but also about how to successfully develop and manage it?  -And can historians and industrial archaeologists serve a role in preserving partially-developed spaceflight technology until the political and social pendulum swings back to enable the work to restart once again?

I’m after the answers, and I’ll report back what I find.


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