Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pressure Suit Immersion Test Clip

Above, a short clip from last month's highly-successful immersion test. All leaks sealed, and all systems GO! Still waiting on the HD footage shot by a Seattle-based film team.

The Larger Picture

Preparing to teach palaeoanthropology next year, I worked on some material today, marshalling in the genetic, fossil and archaeological data that make such a fascinating study of human evolution. The resulting diagram (low-res image above) has some typos and a few more sites to add, but helps sometwhat to make sense of the tremendous amount and variety of information we have today.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Biomedical Profile / Schedule

Working on the the biological system -- myself -- of the whole build. A lot of research into high altitude physiology and flight medicine; strange realms! The NASA Bioastronautics Data Handbook I picked up a couple of months ago is a treasure trove! So for I've sketched out the following requirements, tailored for my kind of aircraft, my bodty size, the expected flight durations and altitudes, and the capacities of my pressure suit and life-support system:

* Weight: I should be 160-165lb with little body fat (at 165 now).

* Temperature: Suit temp to be regulated between 68F and 75F.

* Physical work: should be minimized above 10,000ft.

* Prebreathing: inert gas purge 50 min prior to flight.

* Breathing gas: 100% aviator's breathing oxygen from beginning of flight to landing. Visor can be opened below 8,000 feet on descent, but I should continue to breathe oxygen through the oral-nasal mask.

* Recompression chamber: nearest should be known, prepared and advised on procedures in case of need for recompression therapy.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Interview with Michio Kaku and Robert Zubrin

Last week I was thrilled to do a joint radio interview with Michio Kaku (cofounder of String Theory) and Robert Zubrin (president of the Mars Society) regarding human space migration; this will be broadcast some time next week on Kaku's 'Science Fantastic' radio show, on over 100 radio stations USA-wide!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Big Board

To prevent myself from constantly being a slave of the computer keyboard, I've installed a large drawing board near the flight simulation comupters. This allows me to sketch ideas in analog rather than digital, which is a relief sometimes. I have some programming tasks to do this weekend, to refine the flight simulation program, and the Big Board will be a nice mental relief on occasion. I'll also use it for a big drawing of the gas, electrical, fluid and other systems building up in the cockpit / gondola. Those are in digital as well, but 'thinking out loud' on paper is often a nice break.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Consequence of Civilization

Draft of a recent introduction to my book about my explorations on Iceland's Vatnajokull ice cap. I am completely rewriting this book this year. This is about four pages.

A Consequence of Civilization

© 2013 by Cameron McPherson Smith

Liquid hydrocarbons rushed through fine metal pipes and ignited in a stainless steel cavern, spooling up the jet engines and nudging the aircraft down the runway. Acceleration pushed me gently into my seat. At a specific moment lift was generated above the wide wings and the nose of the aircraft tilted up, adding a third dimension to our travel and tipping the flight computers into glorious domains of vector calculus. A soft electronic tone sounded in the passenger cabin. An irregular grid of yellow city lights slid below as we banked up and into low clouds. Flat gray blankeness was illuminated by the wing lights out my window, then as we climbed further it flashed black, then gray again for a time and finally the even black of the night sky speckled with stars as we broke through the cloud layer. In time the jet leveled on course for a hairlike strip of concrete a sixth of the way around the planet's sphere and invisible from the aircraft's current position.

Later we moved over Canadian mountains. Locked in the crags below languished the fossil remains of our ancestors; the fronded Wiwaxia, articulated trilobites and dozens of other kinds half a billion years old. We cruised above their remains in a pressurized and temperature-regulated cylinder not derived of the long processes of biology but comparatively instantly assembled by a proactive cognition capable of directing its own evolution. Two decades of study gave me only momentary comprehension of the vast spans of time and evolutionary mechanisms involved, but when these came they were delicious moments demanding a pen and notebook.

As on any flight, deviations from theoretical models of atmospheric temperatures, pressures and winds aloft nudged the jet from its course. This caused the pilots to point at their displays and murmur to one another as the autopilot brain adjusted the aircraft, nudging back against Nature, continuously attempting to close the gap between theory and reality.

The aircraft did not fly towards Iceland so much as it was drawn there by the promise of lights, warmth and people. These were treasures opposite the supercooled black void just beyond the pressure hull. Gazing out the window I fought the childish personification of that void as an entity grasping for my life energy; properties of gravitation, pressure and temperature simply dictate that voids are filled, with no thought or even the capacity for thought of acquisition.

Long afterwards, having passed over the immense white disc of Hudson Bay and into a fresh night over the North Atlantic, I felt the engines throttle down, initiating the long glide down to Reykjavik. A dozen Vikings had settled there a thousand years before; today there was a city of 40,000 and an airstrip. At the proper moment the autopilot was dismissed. Now, in gestures of great beauty, gentle contractions and extensions of human muscle actuated the flight controls. The jet turned, directed by the minds of two pilots subtly adjusting the attitude of the aircraft from one microsecond to the next. The minds directing those gestures were specialized; the pilots could not grow their own food or weave their own clothing, but civilization had arranged that, properly equipped, they were capable of directing a craft across their diminishing planet.

The jet landed with a long nudge and the comforting roar of thrust reversers. In the cockpit, certain levers were drawn back and certain buttons were pushed. The calm electronic tone sounded again and a woman's voice welcomed us to Iceland with softened consonants. I felt the pilot touch the brakes in a moment of control containing centuries of science. Runway lights flashed through the window, each of their glowing filaments a result of a dozen largely-ignored discoveries. Blowing snow swirled at the edges of the airstrip as we slowed and turned sharply toward low, lighted buildings.

By these techniques and means civilization had reeled our aircraft across the Earth with magnetism, combustion, lift and streams of electrons. We had been reeled through a slender tube, 4,000 miles long and slightly wider than the aircraft itself. The boundaries of the tube were mathematical parameters beyond which there would be a brief disorder and then a quiet rain of matter down to Earth. As a cell deploys enzymes or draws in nutrients to maintain order, the body of civilization was here maintained by yet another momentary act, one of millions working simultaneously against disorder. At this point in evolution it remained necessary for the organism of civilization to maintain a flux of the arrangement of matter, shuttling resources—minds, and the bodies carrying them—from one point in space to another.

I was a product of this civilization as plainly as any jet engine. But consciousness was the stamp that set me apart from even the most elaborate assembly of metal and wiring. And that consciousness—characterized by the ability to represent our surroundings in dozens of metaphoric representations, leading to disorder—allowed me perceive a realm of mystery beyond the boundaries of civilization itself, and to even wish to explore that mystery.

Civilization, then, had produced in me an instrument of exploration, a scout of its boundaries, a sensory tendril much like a Mars lander. This was at least one way to explain my drive to depart the larger body of civilization, for a time, and expend significant portions of my existence—and even risk that existence—exploring a vast sheet of ice, the Vatnajokull. Most life forms die before having their own offspring, a mathematical fact described by humans as 'natural selection'. For the organism of civilization it is natural to risk a life for the food of information.

But why explore the Vatnajokull alone, on foot, in Winter? This mystery is easily dissolved in the acid of evolution. It would be one thing to perceive the ice cap through photographs and satellite images, but that experience employs only few senses, and we have at least five. So it was preferable for civilization for me to go in person, just as one prefers to eat a meal rather see a photograph of a meal. And why alone? The genetic and cultural potions that had built me over some decades had built a person comfortable alone, with thoughts free of social negotiations and largely content to focus on his surroundings. And why in Winter? Because the ice cap had not been explored with all senses by a lone person in Winter.

The Vatnajokull, then, alone in Winter, was a void in human experience, one unknown to civilization, and it was the void into which I was poured or pushed by civilization itself, and by no design but only as an emergent property of the organism of civilization itself.

So as civilization at Reykjavik had inadvertently but orderly drawn specks of civilization from across the planet, civilization indadvertently but orderly pushed my speck out, toward its opposite, the wilderness of the Vatnajokull Ice Cap.

© 2013 by Cameron McPherson Smith

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Gas and Electric Panels

Close-up photos of the breathing gas and electrical panels.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Smashing Through Barriers!

Writing, some think, is an easy matter of sitting at a computer and pressing buttons. But if it's to be anything that actually carries your thoughts and emotions, it takes a lot more than that -- it takes focus. Here is a great demonstraton of focus, by Yundi Li!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Monday, January 14, 2013

Recent Cockpit Design Test

Recently we did a test with Bruce Matiya (left; Chuck Sullivan on the right) in attendance, a retired engineer who's worked on helicopters, Air Force 1, a micropump for Mars lander and other systems. He currently runs his son's Formula 1 racing team, and he had some great insights about cockpit design and mobility issues once seated (similar to Formula 1 I am in a confined space, but it's critical for me to reach actuators etc). Today I'm working on 'fairing' the system; securing all wiring and hoses, painting any exposed surfaces black to eliminate visual clutter, and tightening all fittings. The next test will be significant!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nearing Prototype Completion

All systems are working; electrical, gas, cooling. The suit holds appropriate pressure at a reasonable leak rate. Last night I realized that this means the essential prototype is complete. Todat I am just tightening up a few fittings and using zipties to arrange the hoses. I've moved the electrical panel closer in, so in the next pressurization I'll do a dexterity test to see whether I have it where I want it. With the cockpit and its systems established, I'll move back to the suit for a while: it needs a protective coverall, sooner rather than later, as using it through many tests is already wearing on some of the textiles. All systems GO for a full, 2-hour test next weekend, complete with the computer simulator running (a few programming issues to wrap up there).

Friday, January 11, 2013


A video frame of our beautiful sailing raft, a replica of a vessel described by Conquistadores in the 1st quarter of the 16th C AD. This is a sea trial just off the coast of Salango, Ecuador.

Metal Shaving

A tiny metal shaving, the product of my over-tightening a fitting. Such a small thing can clog a pressure gauge, or a valve. Attention to detail will make or break this project!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Plenty of Progress 2011-2013

The photo shows 'the system' in June 2011...pretty basic! Puzzle-piece by puzzle-piece, the whole enchilada is coming together!

New Landscapes

About this time last year I cast off from America to visit my girlfriend in England. She was in the middle of her PhD studies and I was hammering out a book about space colonization (since published), doing the final edits to my book "The Fact of Evolution" (since published), working on my Introduction to Archaeology text, "Ancestors" (since published), thinking through my balloon project issues and at the same time trying to patch up my relationship with ______.

The stresses were enormous and in hindsight, it's no wonder the relationship fell apart. The stress was such that my hair was falling out and I gained 20 pounds and generally I was a nervous wreck, as they say, socially crippled and emotionally absent.

Today my hair has come back, I am back down to my 1990's 'climbing weight' of 165lb and my stress level--felt directly in my very heart--has dropped massively, particularly after spending time with my extended family this past summer (the best part being a month and a half just living with Mom and Dad every day, making breakfast or sharing dinner).

I wish that I could still have a relationship with ______, because she was, for a time, my best friend. But that is not in the cards, and I will take the punishment of obsession.

I have certainly spent plenty of time in this territory! It is a lonely land, but one of rare and beautiful scapes; sea-, and star-scapes...Visions purchased, at a steep price, with the coin of human engagement.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Forthcoming Radio Interview

On 22 Jan I have a joint radio interview with Dr. Michio Kaku (co-founder of String Theory) and Dr. Robert Zubrin (the peppery head of the Mars Society) regarding human evolution beyond Earth for Michio Kaku's syndicated radio show 'Science Fantastic' (this will be my second radio show with Dr. Kaku).

I need to get my ducks in a row as Dr. Zubrin spits out statistics & quantifiables like a machine gun, while my focus is on processes rather than outcomes, which sound rather 'soft'. So, for the next couple of weeks I will be working on bringing my stats and concretes up to Zubrin-level!

The radio show will be broadcast to over 100 US radio stations the weekend after the 22nd Jan.

Gas Panel Development

After some edits to my textbook at the coffee shop very early this AM (not teaching this quarter, but I am still working :p) I did a few modifications to the Gas Control Panel, which is now, I think, very close to the flyable state. The hoses will be replaced by stainless steel piping later; for the moment they prove the concept and allow some flexibility as I dial in the exact dimensions and layout of the cockpit.

In the photo: top-- breathing gas demand regulator (an old CRU unit, entirely functional but to be refurbished and inspected [and perhaps replaced] before flight), top left -- breathing gas pressure indicator; below this gauge, a chinzy (to be replaced) valve controlling breathing gas pressure; largest gauge -- pressure suit pressure indicator; needle valve below largest gauge -- suit pressurization gas control valve; below this, lever valves to control breathing gas delivery options (1 in center= default=CRU demand regulator, 2=backup #1=foot pedal breathing gas delivery, 3=backup #2=hand lever breathing gas delivery). Close to ready for a full test, now just detecting and knocking out leaks. All valves etc. in the final build will be certified compatible for delivering Aviator's Breathing Oxygen, a special, dry 100% oxygen such that no moisture is introduced into pipes, which could freeze at low temperatures and clog pipes and/or gauges.

Regarding these breathing gas optipons, a friend recently emailed me with the question:

"Do you have to practice breathing in four ways?" which I replied:

"Tola, in fact I do. The default breathing gas (BG) is delivered from a regulator much like a SCUBA regulator: breathe in and you get BG. This is like normal breathing, though at low pressure might require a special technique called 'pressure breathing' that involves use of some stomach muscles to help oxygenate the lungs. The other options deliver BG with an actuator that I work with hand or foot; to get a breath, I press the foot pedal or pull the hand lever; this requires coordinating breaths (shallow, deep etc) with motions of those appendages. Imagine making a hand gesture or foot gesture each time you want a breath; combined with the possible need for pressure breathing, yes, these all indicate needing to practice breathing in several new ways. I've tried them and will do many simulations, and it is very interesting stuff!"

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Breathing Gas Manifold Work

Further work on the breathing gas manifold from dawn till dusk! This gives me three options for delivering breathing gas (a fourth is a separate system), allowing me to control gas pressure upstream as well as downstream of any fitting. This allows me to switch from one system to another if any regulator fails, particularly allowing me to cut off gas if a regulator fails in the open ('free flow') position.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Breathing Gas Manifold

Up early, unable to sleep with memories of Winter climbing, and thoughts of this project's pressure controllers, so I started on the gas manifold -- which will give me four ways to breathe [a main and three backups] -- tested it a couple of hours ago, and it works 100%. Hot tamales! Three backups might sound excessive, but to keep my goose from being cooked, I'm building backups to backups! There will actually be a fourth way as well, a last-ditch and pretty foolproof way. Also, just for fun, a great photo from a great expedition in 1995, my photo of my climbing partner Chiu Liang Kuo dragging his supply sled on the Baird Glacier, Alaska.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Winter is here! It's clear and cold, for a week, and a few years back this is exactly the time that I would prepare my climbing gear for an ascent; only winter was of interest because it is in this season that everything is harder to do -- it's colder, the daylight hours are shorter, the ice remains unstable, you're burning more calories just to stay alive (much less, actually climb a mountain!)... I think the best expression of Winter that I've known -- other than my own avalanche escapes and many desperate nights in snow caves -- is in this wonderful piece by Vivaldi.