Dreaming up a new defence contractor

Summary:A bureaucracy extending far into the industries affected and having roughly the splendid indifference to mission and tax dollars otherwise characteristic of nationalised industries like the British and Canadian national health services.

On August 22, 1963 a guy named Joe Walker flew the Bell X-15 experimental spaceplane to 354,200 feet - a record not equalled until Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne to 367,442 feet in October of 2004.

What happened at NASA in between was basically that the national urgency put into the moon missions forced NASA to choose the heavy lift rocket approach over continuation of the space plane program - with the long term consequences we see today: a classic case of not having the time to do things right, and then getting trapped into spending fifty years trying to pretend that a successful short cut based on doing more of what you know how to do can substitute for real research and development.

Look at NASA today and what you see is a titanic struggle between past winners who claim the right to repeat the mistakes of the past and a much smaller group of entrepreneurial scientist/engineers who're trying to get the spaceplane program back on track. These are the people using SpaceShipOne's success as both the hammer and the anvil for their attacks on NASA's established bureaucracy -and getting no where fast because that bureaucracy extends far into the industries affected and has roughly the splendid indifference to mission and tax dollars otherwise characteristic of nationalised industries like the British and Canadian national health services.

The field of anti-submarine warfare offers a remarkable parallel to this: in which a detour undertaken for the best of reasons came to dominant subsequent planning to the point where it became impossible to return to the original long term path. There is no Ansari-X prize for submarine detection, but a private company able to do this significantly better than the U.S. Navy might well kick start a similar internal conflict -one that, in the  end, can only be won by proponents of the long term right answer.

The right answer comes from a simple observation: a submarine moving under water leaves a three dimensional wake - and that wake distorts the surface in predictable ways even if the sub is crawling along amid the rocks 900 feet below the surface of a Norwegian Fjord.

In other words: don't bother listening for the thing, because the other guy can always make his subs quieter - but look for its surface trace because the ability to do that well keeps the other guy's submarines in port, where they waste his resources.

So how? Well it's actually a relative simple (cough) photogrammetric application - one for which Altivec equipped parallel machines like IBM's cell processor are almost perfectly suited. The processing volume is high, the best and most timely data sources aren't directly available to civilian companies, but the job itself is not that hard: take a real time surface image, subtract surface differences that are both chaotic and consistent across the image, and look for the characteristic "embossed i" the submarine's wake leaves as it interferes with other surface motion.

Organisationally this is a matter of having the right people, with the right access, make the right pitch - technically it's a matter of racking up a supercomputer of whatever size is needed for the demonstration work by assembling enough Mercury blades (sold by IBM as the QS-20). customising some fairly standard codes, and getting false positive recognition down to some manageable level.

Okay, it's not a weekend's work, but it could make it possible to follow every Chinese or other suspect sub through every step of every sortie - and that's a big money contribution to U.S., and therefore world, security.

Topics: Nasa / Space, Health, IBM, Telcos

About

Originally a Math/Physics graduate who couldn't cut it in his own field, Paul Murphy (a pseudonym) became an IT consultant specializing in Unix and related technologies after a stint working for a DARPA contractor programming in Fortran and APL. Since then he's worked in both systems management and consulting for a range of employers inc... Full Bio

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