UDMH! Secret Rocket Fuel!

The latest alarum from that Orthrus of interventionist reporting about North Korean missile capabilities, William Broad and David Sanger of the New York Times, concerns what they deem to be a “rare, potent” rocket fuel that “those who study the issue” believe should be kept out of that strange land or at least blown up (I think maybe that’s what they mean by “take advantage of its volatile properties”) before it reaches a launch pad there. It’s called UDMH, for unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, which they also warn is “highly volatile” and “deadly” and “highly poisonous.” (So is the gasoline in my lawnmower, I’m quite sure, but never mind.) This is rocket fuel, by dang, and it even has a “secret formula.”  Yet Wikipedia, that viper’s den of secret information, offers the following about how UDMH is manufactured, which in my college chemistry days would definitely have been called formulas:

UDMH is produced industrially by two routes. One, based on the Olin Raschig process, involves reaction of chloramine with dimethylamine. This method gives the hydrochloride of the hydrazine:

(CH3)2NH + NH2Cl → (CH3)2NNH2 + HCl

Alternatively, acetylhydrazine can be N-methylated using formaldehyde to give the N,N-dimethyl-N’-acetylhydrazine, which can subsequently be hydrolyzed:

CH3C(O)NHNH2 + 2 CH2O + 2 H2 → CH3C(O)NHN(CH3)2 + 2 H2O
CH3C(O)NHN(CH3)2 + H2O → CH3COOH + H2NN(CH3)2

So, assuming that there might be a few chemical engineers in North Korea who could do much better than the grades I got in chemistry, it’s not unreasonable to guess that they can brew this hooch themselves. Or maybe they could have just bought some directly or through dastardly intermediaries from Arch Chemicals Inc. in Westlake, LA, which advertises its commercial availability on their website.  Who knows? Sure, it’s dangerous (not too dangerous for the folks down in Westlake, of course), but as one of Broad-and-Sanger’s sources who have been studying the issue opines, “the North Korean tolerance for casualties is probably pretty high.”

Right, they don’t value human life the way we do, remember?

Update 9/27: Homebrew it is.


Chelsea Manning and Enola Gay

Harvard’s cowardly revocation of a Kennedy School fellowship offer to Chelsea Manning recalls another prominent lesson in where power resides when government and academic circles overlap. In 1995, when the Smithsonian Institution tried to mount a 50th anniversary exhibition at the Air and Space Museum about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, daring to broach the factual horror of Japanese civilian victims along with a display of the restored B-29 “Enola Gay” bomber, outrage from American military organizations and Congressional hawks not only succeeded in cancelling the show but in ousting the museum’s director, Cornell astronomer Martin Harwit. (Harwit’s book about the imbroglio, An Exhibit Denied, remains a profound narrative about politics and culture.)  The Enola Gay was and is a sacred icon for a triumphalist tale that many Americans–at least those emblematized by the Air Force Association–cling to regardless of how thoroughly it has been debunked by postwar scholarship. Analogous forces, this time centered in the CIA, evidently cannot abide recognizing Chelsea Manning’s principled exposure of dubiously classified information showing, shall we say, less than noble performance of American foreign policy initiatives. So now students and, perhaps more to the point, faculty at Harvard will be able to hobnob with such illuminati as Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski, unperturbed by the historical complexity that is Chelsea Manning. At moments like these, the role of the Smithsonian and Kennedy School as propaganda vehicles becomes clear as ice.

Douglas Dowd, 1919-2017

The death of Doug Dowd at 97 marks a milestone loss in the formidable group of scholar-activists who found themselves in Ithaca, New York, ostensibly far from centers of political power, as the 1960’s anti-war and civil rights movements shook the nation to its core. Including Dan Berrigan of Cornell United Religious Work, James Turner of the pioneering Africana Studies center, and George Kahin of the stellar Southeast Asia Program, among many other faculty who lent their authority and expertise to the tumultuous scene via teach-ins or direct action, they served as role models for a generation of young students who had been raised to pursue little else besides their own golden careers. Dowd possessed memorable patience for the political tenderfoots who intuited that something was very wrong in Washington and across the Deep South, but arrived at college laden with high school propaganda and no sophistication in history or economics to piece together a coherent picture of the Gargantua Behemoth that was Cold War America. To become “radicalized” in those days was to grow both angry and informed. For many kids from the hidebound suburban intellectual wastelands, like me, listening to Dowd’s economics lectures (co-taught with Alfred Kahn, who went on to de-regulate the airlines for Jimmy Carter–quite an improbable duo) and then hearing him describe his experiences in Fayette County created a life-changing meld of thought and action. It sounds so obvious, in retrospect. But it was not an easy existential leap at the time. Nor is it for today’s youth. (What social psychologists nowadays call “identity-protective cognition” still keeps a lot of privileged students from challenging the status quo.) Without Dowd and the others, it would have been far harder, maybe even impossible.

“Pleasurable–and often valid–though it may be to blame Reagan for our ills, it must be said that the emergence of new tendencies strengthening the political Right is not to be explained principally in terms of the presidential personalities involved. Rather, such personalities and such politics became acceptable, even enthusiastically so, to a population that time and circumstance had been tutoring in greed and fear, and that thus learned to be ever more careless and mindless of its own social needs, and heartless concerning the needs of others.”–Blues for America, 1997








Dowd speaking in Willard Straight Hall, 1964

(Cornell Daily Sun)

On the Death of George A. Keyworth: “You are a lunatic.”

The death at 77 of George Keyworth, Ronald Reagan’s “science advisor” from 1981 to 1985, recalls the roots of today’s anti-science zeitgeist in the Republican Party and farther reaches of American right-wing politics. Keyworth was the epitome of the technically educated but politically clueless rube, who rose from toiling at Los Alamos as a protege of loathsome Edward Teller to flacking for the most scientifically illiterate President of the 20th century. As chief huckster for the science-fictional Star Wars antimissile program, he turned his back on scientific facts in order to endorse his boss’s fantasies. Hedrick Smith’s account of the genesis of Reagan’s March 23, 1983, speech that launched the program quotes an aghast Secretary of State George Schultz bellowing at Keyworth you are a lunatic after reading his draft of the announcement. That should serve as an epitaph for a scientist whose expertise fell far short of speaking truth to power.

The United States of Amnesia

August, 1966

Henry D. Thoreau, 7/12/1817

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Die Rakete

From the earliest days of the Third Reich, when Wernher von Braun and other German army enthusiasts developed the tech that spawned the V-2 and, later, when they came to the United States and Soviet Union after WWII, helped create long-range missiles that doubled as astronaut launchers, big chemical rockets have held an outsized fascination. Hitler himself was rather unimpressed, actually, realizing right away that they would be useless in conquering lots of foreign landmass. For that he needed young bodies, bullets, and old-fashioned blast. You still would. “Es war doch gewaltig,” he said with an absent smile after first witnessing the spectacle of two static rocket motor firings in March 1939. “Well, it was grand.” Meh. What turned the costly and finicky weapons into an existential threat by the late-1950s was mounting nuclear bombs on top, though this also made them practically useless, since firing them with hostile intent would be an act of national suicide.  It still would. Now that North Korea has apparently joined–in potential, if hardly in kind–the U.S., Russia, China, France, Great Britain, India, and Israel as wielders of these singular munitions, the world’s 70-year-old nuclear nightmare gains yet another set of imaginary, apocalyptic concentric circles showing who could hit whom with what. If Kim Jong-un and his generals ever want to incinerate their entire nation, they now (or will soon) have the means to ensure this happens quickly. Short of that, however, they simply join the strange geopolitical calculus of strategic nuclear theory, which we have been living fitfully with for a long time.

B-21: Raiders of the Lost Mind

The minuscule number of Americans who take even a cursory glance, let alone a concerted gaze, at their nation’s fantastically expensive strategic weapons programs quickly run into the wall of secrecy that keeps all but a few officials in near total darkness. Even the Congressional Research Service, tasked with informing members of Congress about such arcane subjects, is only able to compile shallow reports of little practical use. Many hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake, but we must believe that a handful of Annapolis, West Point, or Colorado Springs graduates and their industry dependents are wise managers of this treasure. Longtime observers know that the historical evidence is not encouraging.

In October 2015, the Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to build a new strategic bomber, dubbed the B-21 “Raider”, with the following (unclassified) funding profile, according to the CRS:








The money until FY2009 was just for R&D. Then the program was paused for two years while the Obama administration pondered its necessity. It made up for lost time after that. CRS essentially throws up its hands in frustration when trying to evaluate these numbers, because so few technical details have been revealed. Too, although the B-21 is one of the Air Force’s largest projects, the bomber is being managed and paid for through what CRS calls “nontraditional means,” namely something known as the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, “a much smaller program office than typical for such a significant program.”  That is, even fewer eyes than usual. CRS could not even determine whether formal acquisition milestone certifications of the technology were being carried out. They do know that the development contract is cost-plus, one of the classic horrors of military procurement. Northrop Grumman’s winning bid came in so far below Pentagon estimates that it raised the specter of old-fashioned “buying in,” a defense industry tradition. “Congress may wish to revisit DOD’s cost estimation to understand why the estimated cost was significantly higher than the actual bid,” CRS politely suggests. “In addition, Congress may wish to use its oversight mechanisms to verify that the contract can be executed at the price bid.” The outlook is not auspicious: “Both the House- and Senate-passed versions of the FY2017 defense authorization bill included requirements that DOD disclose the total cost of the B-21. However, those provisions did not appear in the final conference report.” So it goes.

Finally, the CRS points out, most of the B-21 program is classified at the Special Access level, above Top Secret. “Due to the size of the B-21 program, its implications for defense budgeting, and other issues like the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, the B-21 may attract interest from Members not typically involved in such issues. Congress may wish to consider whether such Members’ interests require a greater level of access to program data, or whether the issues can be adequately addressed under current rules.” If past is prelude, this is about as likely as making those numbers in Table 1 match the reality of a blank check.


Heliocentrism is a BAD deal for geocentrists

Annals of anti-science.

Sound of One Hand Clapping: The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site

The aptly named Ronald Reagan missile defense testing range centered in the Marshall Islands at Kwajalein Atoll was back in the news this week for the latest attempt to hit a mock ICBM launched there with an interceptor fired from California. Military officials called it a success, but longtime observers of this program know how that term can express Zen-like mysteries from an engineering perspective. If all the dollars sunk at Kwajalein since it was a Navy base in World War II were simply allowed to pile up on the sea floor, the hundreds of Marshallese workers who tote and fetch for thousands of Bechtel and Lockheed Martin employees could probably walk from their homes on Ebeye Island instead of taking a ferry. The official figure of about $123 billion spent on developing a ballistic missile defense system since 2002 is just a spit in the ocean for an essentially endless effort that stretches back so far in time that the people who first devoted their careers to it are either long dead or of limited memory capacity. My 99-year-old father, who journeyed to Kwajalein in the 1960’s for Martin Marietta, is in the latter category. Whatever exactly he did there is lost in the mist and doesn’t matter anyway. The rockets are still nothing a nation should stake its life on. The latest GAO report on missile defense sums up the situation perfectly: “The lack of traceability of MDA’s [Missile Defense Agency] integrated test schedule makes it difficult not only to determine what is happening with a test, but also with its testing progress as a whole, including what and when requirements were originally planned to be met and which ones have been met, when they were met, and with what test.”  In other words, it’s all a blur. Money, too, is squirrelly: “MDA has reported the total costs for a specific test using its test level cost estimates, but the information for the same test has been inconsistent across requests. Specifically, for one test we received an estimate of $261 million and later received an estimate of $26 million for that same test. Similarly, for another test Congress received an estimate of $212.1 million and we received an estimate of $51.01 million for the same test.” No doubt it gets lonely out there in the middle of the Pacific. Washington starts to look like a mirage.  But that $600 billion military budget has to be spent on something, and missile defense is perhaps the biggest suckhole in history. Truly a Reagan monument.