The Age of the Airplane

I’m a airplane nut. Certifiable. I went to airplane Mecca in July – Oshkosh, Wisconsin. AirVenture is the week long celebration of flight at the headquarters of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

IMG_3438While there, I watched an incredible movie about airplanes and how they have revolutionized our lives in just a short amount of time. In about 100 years, one century, flight has progressed from fantasy and dreams to a common, everyday thing.

The Age of the Airplane, is narrated by Harrison Ford, and even if you are not an airplane nut, I think you will find the film fascinating. The cinematography is fantastic, with a lot of great shots of airplanes and beautiful vistas.

The film tells of how roses grown in Kenya end up in Alaska just 36 hours after being cut. The film explains that this is only possible because of the airplane.

However, I would add that there is another necessary ingredient, hydrocarbon fuel and lots of it. Airplanes, as much as I love them, are like a penguin without fuel, stuck on the ground.

I just want to be clear that the unprecedented high standard of living that you and I enjoy, is possible only because of inexpensive energy supplies, like coal, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. If these heretofore relatively abundant supplies of inexpensive fuels become less abundant and therefore more expensive, our standards of living will decline, maybe even precipitously.

That is why I promote nuclear fission energy, especially from the actinide element, thorium. There is enough energy in thorium and enough thorium for all of humanity to enjoy the energy rich standard of living that I currently do, for many millennia into the future. That includes the 3 billion people on this planet that currently do not have access to electricity.

If we pass up the opportunity to tap into the energy stored in the nuclei of thorium, uranium, or plutonium because of radiation phobia, Malthusian hand ringing, or rent seeking crony capitalists and the fossil fuels run out, my hangar could become a barn for draft animals and flying will become, once again, a dream. (And lots of people will die of starvation, too.)

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The Martian

I went to see The Martian this weekend, the movie with Matt Damon as the astronaut stranded on Mars.

Matt DamonI don’t really want to review the movie here, I would just like to talk about the scene in the movie where he digs up a RTG that the astronauts had buried previously and marked with a scary flag as a warning to anyone who might stumble across it, you know radioactivity and all.

Here is a photo of a real RTG powered by plutonium 238. This one was used on Cassini.

RTG from CassiniHere are a few facts regarding RTGs

1. Plutonium 238 is an alpha emitter. These particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper. Real RTGs have sheet metal shielding. Humans can safely be next to these without any worries. (see the photo above.)

2. The radioactivity of the plutonium 238 releases enough energy to make itself red hot from the heat.

3. The heat is harnessed to produce electricity directly with hundreds of thermocouple junctions.

4.  RTGs have been used in deep space probes for decades. They will continue working when the light from the sun is very dim and solar panels aren’t feasible.

That being said, there is no reason for the movie astronauts to have buried the RTGs. They would still be working day and night producing electricity and heat for the astronauts. The rover shown on the movie should have been powered by RTGs. Then, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) could have driven the rover day and night.

Furthermore, serious adults who consider actual Mars missions include nuclear power in their plans, both for propulsion and for heat and electricity.