Sunday, 23 April 2017

Happy 50th, Soyuz!

23 April 1967, 50 years ago today, the first crewed Soyuz spacecraft launched. Three days ago, the latest crewed Soyuz spacecraft launched and docked with the ISS. We've been flying to space in this same design for a full 50 years now, and more of them have been built than any other type of spacecraft by a huge margin - it's the VW Beetle of human spaceflight. Uncrewed test launches of Soyuzes had begun in November 1966, so by that measure, Soyuz already passed its 50th anniversary last year. But I'm more inclined to measure crewed spacecraft by when they're actually inhabited in space.

The closest any other crewed spacecraft comes to that longevity is the DOS space station core module (reaching its 46th crew-carrying anniversary this June), which featured in most of the Salyut space stations and the Mir space station, and is currently part of the ISS. Soyuz and DOS were designed to work together, so it's appropriate but remarkable that they're still doing so today. You'll see in the visual history below how much the two vessel types have been connected.

By coincidence, today is also the 46th anniversary of Soyuz 10's unsuccessful docking attempt with Salyut 1, the first Soyuz-DOS meetup in orbit. Later this year we'll see the 60th anniversary of the R-7 family of rockets, the oldest orbital launcher there is, variants of which have launched all crewed Soyuzes and most uncrewed Soyuzes, plus all sorts of other things.

The longest serving US spacecraft, the Space Shuttle Orbiter, lasted 30 years, and the 5 of those that were built got into space 134 times, accruing a total spaceflight time of just under 1 331 days. Flying only once each, 132 Soyuzes have gotten their crews into space 132 times so far, adding up to 14 956 days of human spaceflight time, and counting. Nine more Soyuzes are scheduled to launch, keeping them in use until 2020. Adding in all the uncrewed Soyuz and Soyuz-variant launches more than doubles the number of times the Soyuz family has flown; there were no uncrewed Space Shuttle flights. So, it's not the simplest comparison.

The second most numerous spacecraft design was the Apollo CSM, of which a mere 15 were launched into space with humans on board.

And while the latest version of Soyuz is definitely modernised and digital, it's also still clearly very close to its original 1960s form; consider below the full evolution of the Soyuz:
(Click to embiggen.)
Top row: Crewed variants of Soyuz.
Bottom row, left group: Major uncrewed variants of Soyuz.
Bottom row, right group: Crewed variants of Tiangong.
(Image credit mostly goes to historicspacecraft.com, with a couple bits from elsewhere and/or modified by me.)

Note that I've included more than just the crewed versions. Soyuz has been around so long, it's been mutated into a few different forms - most import of all is undeniably the Progress cargo vessel. I've also included China's larger Tiangong spacecraft, which was intentionally based on the Soyuz layout, and operates in a very similar way. It is arguably part of the Soyuz family.

One weird thing going through all of the Soyuz missions brings up is how openly sexist the Soviet and Russian space programs have been. Hundreds of people have travelled on Soyuzes, but only 3 of them were Russian women (less than 1 per decade!), and no Soyuz has ever had a woman commander. There are plenty of stories floating about of nasty sexism in Soviet/Russian spaceflight, and they even chose to put it in some of their public relations videos. One case leapt out at me from the Soyuz TMA-11 near-disaster, discussed towards the end of this post. The Roscosmos general director at the time publicly blamed the fact that the vessel concerned had too many women onboard (one American, one South Korean), and said he'd work to prevent this from happening again. You don't joke about crap like that, but I suspect he wasn't kidding.

Because Soyuz has been around for so long, it's hard to discuss absolutely every flight and every crew. At the same time, one of its virtues has been how uneventful and routine most of its operations have become. I think the best way to celebrate this 50th anniversary is a simple visual history of some of the major Soyuz moments. Even condensed this way, it's still a lot.

1966-11-26 (no image available): Kosmos 133, the first uncrewed Soyuz test vehicle, launches. It malfunctioned in orbit and was intentionally destroyed before it could crash. Two further uncrewed test launches followed, both with serious systems failures.

1967-04-23: Soyuz 1 launches, with a single pilot, Vladimir Komarov. Space Race pressure had rushed a premature launch, and the flight was a complete disaster, with several technical failures forcing an early landing. But the parachute failed too, and Komarov simply fell straight from orbit to the ground, the first fatal spaceflight.
1968-10-30: Soyuz 3 lands safely, the first successful crewed Soyuz landing. Soyuz 3 had met up with the uncrewed Soyuz 2 in orbit, but failed to dock with it. Soyuz was the first Soviet spacecraft designed for orbital docking, so many of its early flights were focused around docking experiments.
1969-01-16: Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 dock in orbit, allowing the first crew transfer from one spacecraft to another, and therefore also the first time that cosmonauts had landed in a different vessel from the one they launched in. They had to spacewalk along the outside of the spacecraft to get from one to the other, as there was no internal hatch between the two yet.
1971-04-23: Soyuz 10 attempts to dock with Salyut 1, the first ever space station, but fails to completely do so. Then they had trouble getting completely loose from the station's docking equipment again, but eventually got home.
1971-06-30: Ground crews perform CPR on the already dead crew of Soyuz 11, shortly after it landed. Soyuz 11 successfully docked with Salyut 1, making it the first occupied space station in history. The crew of Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev spent 22 successful days working on the station, but after they undocked Soyuz 11 to go home again, their spacecraft began to rapidly depressurize, asphyxiating the crew in seconds. They are the only humans to have died in space, and while there have been further Soyuz accidents, this was the last fatal one.

1974-07-03: Soyuz 14 launches, docking with the Salyut 3 space station, probably the only crewed spacecraft to be armed.

1975-01-12: Soyuz 17 docks with the Salyut 4 space station for a month. A little over 3 months later, Soyuz 18 docks with Salyut 4 (pictured), making it the first Salyut to receive more than one crew. They were followed in November that year by Soyuz 20, which I believe was the only conventional* Soyuz ever with a fully non-human crew: Tortoises and fruit flies were kept inside as part of a biology research project, while the Soyuz was given a long-duration (90 day) engineering test by remote control. Since the non-human animals never entered Salyut 4, it's a matter of precise definition whether they were its 3rd group of visitors or not.

(*By conventional, I mean the Earth-orbit crew ferry sort of Soyuz, normally used by human crews. In 1968 there were two variant Soyuzes of the Zond lunar program that also carried non-human animals. Zond 5 successfully carried tortoises, wine flies and meal worms around the Moon and safely landed back on Earth. Zond 6 also flew around the Moon with similar passengers, but on return to Earth, it suddenly depressurized, killing everything inside, and then also suffered a prachute failure. If Zond 6 hadn't failed, and if Apollo 8 hadn't beaten them to it, the next Soyuz 7K-L1 might have been allowed to launch humans around the Moon. There may have been animals on one or more Progresses too, but I haven't dug that up yet.)

1975-04-05: The crew of what is now officially only called Soyuz 7K-T #39, but also variously known as Soyuz 18a, Soyuz 18-1, or the 5 April Anomaly, and what had orginally been launched as Soyuz 18 (for a few minutes, anyway). Due to a mechanical failure and subsequent launch abort, just after it reached space, this accidentally became the only crewed suborbital Soyuz launch. The re-entry module landed on a snowy slope and rolled down it for a while, but the crew survived.

1975-07-17: Soyuz 19 and Apollo 18 dock in orbit, the first international spacecraft docking. They didn't do much up there, but their long-term influence has been enormous.
1976-07-07: Soyuz 21 becomes first spacecraft to dock with the Salyut 5 space station. Soyuz 23 failed to become second to dock there, and on landing accidentally became trapped under the ice of Lake Tengiz, the only crewed Soyuz water landing. It took 9 cold hours to safely get the crew out. Soyuz 24 later made the actual second (and final) successful docking with Salyut 5.
1977-12-11: Following the failure of Soyuz 25 to dock with Salyut 6, Soyuz 26 becomes first to dock with the new space station. In total, 17 Soyuzes successfully docked with Salyut 6, as well as one more failed docking by Soyuz 33. Soyuz T-4 (pictured) was the last to undock from the station, on 1981-05-26. Salyut 6 was the first space station to allow multiple simultaneous dockings, so that Progress supply ships could make deliveries to crews, and multiple crews could board the station at the same time, without having to leave the station unoccupied. This was first demonstrated when Soyuz 27 arrived a week before Soyuz 26 departed. Salyut 6 was also notable for beginning the Interkosmos program of various international guest cosmonauts joining the Soyuz/Salyut crews on a regular basis.
1982-05-15: Soyuz T-5 is first to dock with the Salyut 7 space station. In total, 10 Soyuz spacecraft successfully docked with Salyut 7, with only Soyuz T-8 failing to. Salyut 7 had fewer Soyuzes visit it than Salyut 6, but longer visits meant that Salyut 7 lasted for longer than its predecessor. Soyuz T-14 is pictured docked to it here.
1983-09-26: People watch the critical escape of what is now officially only called Soyuz 7K-ST #16L, but also variously known as Soyuz T-10a or Soyuz T-10-1, and what had been 90 seconds short of launching as the original Soyuz T-10. This Soyuz was the only case of its launch escape system saving a crew, when the launch rocket exploded underneath it. The crew were flung away and landed unharmed, and their spacecraft's orbital module was even recycled for use on Soyuz T-15.
1986-03-13: Soyuz T-15 launches (with its recycled orbital module) and becomes first to dock with the Mir space station. They then left Mir's lights on, flew the Soyuz to Salyut 7 to dock with it for the final time, stole a bunch of useful equipment for Mir, and then flew their Soyuz back to dock with Mir again. This makes Soyuz T-15 the only spacecraft so far to fly back and forth between different space stations.
Following Soyuz T-15, another 29 Soyuzes visited Mir. During the same period, three of the US shuttles made 9 dockings with Mir, the first international dockings since 1975's Soyuz-Apollo meeting. Soyuz TM-30 was the last to undock from Mir, on 2000-06-15. Lots of interesting things happened on Mir, but the fact that there's not much more to add about Soyuz specifically is an indication of how reliable and routine Soyuz operations had become by this point.
2000-11-02: Soyuz TM-31 is the first Soyuz to dock with the International Space Station, carrying the crew known as Expedition 1. Three US shuttles had preceded it since December 1998, making 5 dockings before Soyuz TM-31 arrived. However, that Soyuz visit marks the start of the station's continuous occupation (over 16 years without being empty once), as shuttle visits could only be a couple weeks long before returning to Earth, while Soyuz had been made suitable over the Salyut/Mir years to remain docked at the station for 6 or 7 months at a time.
Today, 2017-04-23, there are two Soyuzes docked at the ISS (Soyuz MS-03 and Soyuz MS-04), and their combined crews are its Expedition 51. The three US shuttles visited the ISS 37 times altogether, while 50 Soyuzes have so far docked there, along with a whole lot of different uncrewed cargo vessels. Since the shuttles retired in 2011, Soyuz has been the only way to get people to and from the ISS (apart from making a deal with China to use Tiangongs, maybe). In the next few years, Crew Dragons and Starliners are due to start bringing crews there too, and possibly also Federatsias.
One worrying but luckily never disastrous malfunction struck both early and late Soyuzes in similar ways during their re-entries. Soyuz 5, back in 1969, and then both Soyuz TMA-10 and Soyuz TMA-11 in 2007/2008, all had their service modules fail to separate from their re-entry modules (step 3 in the diagram), causing them to fall uncontrolled, with their heat shields facing the wrong way. Happily, in all three cases, the heat of re-entry was enough to melt through the last connections to the service module, breaking it free in time for the re-entry module to swing back around to face the correct direction, before the weaker top end of the re-entry module also melted through. Crews suffered injuries and landed well off target, but survived.
Several Soyuz replacements have been proposed over the years, but it looks like Russia is finally really going to switch to a new spacecraft. The larger Federatsia spacecraft is not expected to carry humans until 2024, at the earliest, leaving a four year gap after the last Soyuz lands. Federatsia won't launch on a Soyuz rocket (nor any member of the R-7 rocket family), and it will launch from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia, rather than the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan that every crewed Soviet/Russian launch to date has started from, so it'll see a lot of changes beyond the spacecraft itself.
What strikes me in all of this is that Soyuz is almost never the hero of the story, especially when it's working properly. Early on, it's not really doing too much very groundbreaking, compared with the drama of the first few years of the Space Race, or the ostentatious Apollo Moon missions. Soyuz was originally conceived for Moon missions too, and then had that taken away. And later on, when Soyuz starts servicing space stations, the stations are most often the center of attention, not their little support craft. The little bit of limelight Soyuz has had since 2011 often comes from (or draws in) angry Americans, raging that they're now forced to hitch rides. They don't seem grateful that old Soyuz is still keeping things moving forwards. But that's the main accomplishment of Soyuz: In a series of tortoise-vs.-hare contests, it's been the sure and steady tortoise.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The unclear meaning of WMD

I wrote an essay back in varsity that led to me co-authoring my one and only published journal article. The essay and article weren't that similar, with the article focused on socially constructed meanings given to nuclear weapons, while my essay had been about weapons of mass destruction in general, and had taken a more elementary look at what these weapons physically do and what this meant they had in common (or not).

A quick look at the standard legal definitions of WMD explicitly holds them to the level of destruction of a nuclear bomb, and yet biological and chemical weapons employed in reality just don't get that destructive. No single device built so far gets as destructive as a nuke (causing somewhere close to hundreds of thousands of casualties from one explosion in a population center, possibly more; the definition will vary with location and situation). That's why they're so scary. In comparison, individual chemical weapons have never caused comparable harm, and even sets of them used together have still fallen orders of magnitude short of nukes. Biological weapons remain mostly useless (compared with both nukes or chemical weapons), a dangerous concept to prepare for in future, rather than a practical reality today.

This doesn't diminish the destruction caused by smaller devices. It also doesn't diminish the cumulative destructive potential of large numbers of small devices (if we're not strictly talking about the effects of a single device, then any army, collectively, is automatically a WMD too). It just means the legal definition is very fuzzy or very stretched.

One possibility this fuzziness opens up is that some very large conventional explosives might legally be classed as WMD. They still won't reach the level of even very small nukes, but they can easily exceed the damage done by the chemical weapons that are already classed as WMD. That, to my non-lawyer mind, would seem to imply that large non-nuclear bombs ought to be considered WMD too (or that the definition needs a major rebuild).

These thoughts came back to me this week, as Syria appears to have made another chemical weapon attack, and the US has dropped its very largest non-nuclear bomb. I can already see the media (and thus the wider public too) getting mixed up about the nature of WMD, and what to do about them. This sort of confusion only makes it harder to discuss intelligent de-escalation or the hypocrisy of violent "peacekeeping". Whether the formal legal definition of weapons of mass destruction changes or not, it may be wise to push the term out of widespread use. It doesn't seem to serve a useful conversational function, and it invites a lot of misleading double meaning.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A quick gender analysis of TableTop

I've been slowly catching up on season 4 of TableTop, now that I have a little free time, and I got as far as the episode on Dragon Farkle. What leapt out at me about it was the all-male cast, and this got me thinking that I'd been seeing very few women in season 4. That would be disappointingly unrepresentative, especially for a show that's so far done a great job of showing varied men and women enjoying boardgames together. And among the guys in early season 4 are Tim Schafer and Andy Weir, which was an absolutely fantastic surprise combo for me. But I also wouldn't want to ignore a problematic change in the show, if it was a real change. But how to be sure? Maths!

It was 5 minutes' work to scan through the episode list on Wikipedia, which conveniently lists each episode's guest players. I made a little spreadsheet, sorting the players per episode by apparent gender (which at this distance looks like simply Boys and Girls; a more thorough analysis might split those numbers up further). And that very rushed spreadsheet yielded this graph of gender representation per episode:
Click to embiggen.

Note that the host, Wil Wheaton, is counted as a player in all of these episodes, giving an automatic +1 to the boys (hence the solid blue bottom of the graph); more on this below. Note also that series co-creator Felicia Day also steps in as a guest player occasionally, and I've marked all of her appearances with the symbol F. The standard show format features Wil plus three guest players, and exceptions to this are rare (about once per season). Two-parter episodes come up once or twice per season, but I've counted each of these as two separate episodes here. If the point is to test representation, then getting twice as many appearances as in a single episode should be counted as such.


So, what does it mean? To draw some useful conclusions from the constantly shifting graph, I've drawn out three things:
1. The average number of boys and girls per season. (Includes Wil Wheaton.)
2. The average number of non-Wil Wheaton boys per season.
3. The number of episodes per season that have an exact 50/50 gender split. (Includes Wil Wheaton.)


It would be fruitless to look for the 50/50 gender split without including Wil Wheaton, because of the standard four-player format.

I definitely wasn't crazy to notice a shift away from women guests in the early part of season 4. Episode 4-3 is a brief exception, and then there's a string of mostly-men episodes for a while. But the good news is, season 4 over all is much better.

The Wil-inclusive average gender split for each season is:
S1: 2,9 boys, 1,2 girls
S2: 2,6 boys, 1,5 girls
S3: 2,5 boys, 1,5 girls
S4: 2,5 boys, 1,6 girls
Which looks like it's tending towards equality.

It's even clearer with the Wil-exclusive average gender split per season:
S1: 1,9 boys, 1,2 girls
S2: 1,6 boys, 1,5 girls
S3: 1,5 boys, 1,5 girls
S4: 1,5 boys, 1,6 girls
Unsurprisingly, the boys lose their +1, and viewed this way, only season 1 is particularly unequal.

There are arguments in favour of either including or excluding Wil Wheaton from our count. But either way, the trend is headed in the same direction.

And finally, the number of perfectly equal episodes per season are also tending upwards:
S1: 5 episodes
S2: 7 episodes
S3: 9 episodes
S4: 11 episodes

I have no idea if this is intentional on their part or not, but at least it satisfies my initial concern. Things look sane and reasonable.

One final observation: Appearances by Felica Day seem to be less common over time. That's a pity, because I always enjoy her participation, but I suppose this means they're finding it easier to find new people to fill out their casts.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Star Trek Conception: A Narrative & Puzzle-driven Roleplaying Game

I've been kicking around ideas for an alternative Star Trek roleplaying game system for years now, with little solid progress. Work keeps getting in the way of my train of thought. But this time, I think I've really got something solid. Find below version 1 of the rules booklet, standard blank character sheet, and introductory adventure (for GM's eyes only):

Star Trek Conception (The rules, 15 pages)
Standard Character Sheet (1 page)
Sample Episode, titled "Keep It Down" (2 pages, Spoilers, do not read if you're not the GM)

"I cast Magic Missile!"

The rules might make more sense if you know the background process of how they came to me.

Step 1 is that I've stolen some ideas from Fiasco. Specifically, the bit where the game is divided into scenes, and that's about as low as the game's resolution goes. No rolls for individual actions, no splitting hairs about exactly how awesome your stats are. Just the story, unpredictable and organic, yet still clearly made from the players' choices.

You could run a totally GMless Star Trek game with little more than this loose structure, but I think an important part of any Star Trek episode is the central mystery or puzzle to solve in each episode, and it's useful to have an impartial GM who can prepare these ahead of time. I tried coming up with an automated mystery generator, but it didn't seem like a satisfying solution. I may add that in future updates, if I ever find a good way to handle it.

So instead, step 2 is acknowledging that this is a GM-led game, though hopefully it leaves fairly little for a decent GM to do, beyond initial setup and verbal description.

There are some dice rolls to be made, and I'll admit that they aren't as elegant as the plot-generating rolls of Fiasco. They're just simpler plot-resolving rolls, pretty similar to the Warhammer speed combat house rules I proposed back in June. In the case of Conception, I think I've gone even further, with just a single roll representing the whole scene, rather than a condensed number of rolls per character, as in the Warhammer.

And then the other big thing I noticed (let's call this step 3) is that Star Trek is always about ideas, concepts, beliefs, points of view. Sure they've got piles of technology, but that's not what the show was ever really about. We mock the episodes that use easy technological solutions to deus ex machina a major problem away, and we venerate the episodes that dig deeply into human emotions, ambitions and principles.

To reflect this, I've made personal ideology a major part of the rules. How things turn out is directly affected by what your characters believe. This was something we originally played around with in a Planescape game, years ago, where each player was required to formally define with their character's core beliefs, and these served as both roleplaying guidelines and a way to add dice modifiers. I have something similar in mind for Star Trek, except that where belief literally reshapes the universe in Planescape, in Star Trek it should be viewed more as shaping personal intention and action in a more abstract way. On the other hand, where personal beliefs were just modifiers to normal gaming statistics in our Planescape rules, for the Conception rules, personal ideology effectively is your major set of gaming attributes. It's much more qualitative than quantitative, which is something new for me.

We've tested the rules out once, using that sample episode I prepared, and it seemed to work well enough. Character depth was lacking, but this is not surprising whenever a new game starts up. Of course, I know this wasn't a perfectly fair test, since I already knew both the outcome I wanted and how to play that to my very familiar group of players. Blinded testing would probably reveal some useful flaws I could correct, so if anyone does have feedback after trying these rules, please do let me know.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

How Many People Did Neil Armstrong Kill?

To answer the title question: I don't know. It's not clear to me if anyone knows the answer to that question for certain. It's quite likely that Armstrong (yes, first human on the Moon Armstrong) did kill people, and yet there's no clear (public) record of it. Very few sources even seem to want to report it, only noting slightly euphemistically that he flew combat missions in Korea, and then they rush off to his later, cleaner exploits.

That's kind of weird. The actual violence tells us something about Armstrong, but the whitewashing of his background arguably tells us more about ourselves.

To spell it out clearly, he was mostly involved in ground attack flights, for example bombing anti-aircraft guns (which would likely have killed the people firing those guns), so that later bombers could pass by unimpeded (and possibly kill more people with their own bombs). This is what Neil Armstrong did before he became an astronaut.

I don't think this is the defining activity of his life, if such a thing even really exists. We all mainly know him as the Moon guy, but we also get that this wasn't his whole life. Most people would think of him also as a scientist or pilot, and those who've done their homework would be more specific and call him a naval aviator, test pilot, engineer, and academic. Some might focus on his family life, or his religion, or his media presence. But it doesn't take that much thought to go beyond purely "Moon guy". So why the resistance to also giving him the title of "someone who has probably killed people"?

This is something that's bugged me about many astronauts. Quite a lot of them have military backgrounds, and more than a few have shot people. In most sane professions, that's something that keeps you from getting even the first interview, and yet NASA considers it a virtue instead? We put these people up on pedestals and expect kids to regard them as rolemodels. (Are we hoping the kids will never find out about the violence? Or that they will?) When the first astronauts were hired, it was widely considered damning that most of the early ones were having a lot of sex with a lot of people (oh noes!), and yet not damning in the least that they might have ended someone's life on purpose. That's a pretty fucked up set of priorities.

I've responded to this by doing what any sane, well-adjusted individual would do, and spent several days scanning through every single astronaut/cosmonaut/taikonaut profile page on wikipedia (plus other sources, notably spacefacts.de, where greater clarity was needed) to build up a spreadsheet that categorises all of them by the level of violence they're known to have embraced. Below is the google docs version of that.

The first column with the H's denotes whether they're known to have killed non-human animals, mostly through hunting/fishing. I had a hunch early on that there might be a link between that behaviour and violence against human animals.

The second column gives the person's violence level, on a scale from 0 to 3. 0 indicates no known violence; 1 indicates military employment, with no known actual violence; 2 indicates participation in violent activities, but uncertainty about whether this actually killed anyone or not; 3 indicates definitely actually killing someone.

The fourth column supplies a couple additional notes, clarifying context.

This analysis is mostly only good for spotting major incidents of publicly documented violence. Statistically, it is probably missing all manner of bar brawls and sexual assaults, and it's not inconceivable that someone on this list could have covered up actual murders. But I just don't have evidence for most of that, so I only go with what I can confirm with reasonable certainty.

A separate sheet, in the same format, records space tourists separately from the working spacecraft crews.



There's a lot to process there, even summarised down to this table, so I also put columns 2 and 3 in graph form:


Violence level 1 deserves quite a bit of explaining. It makes the most consistent line in the graph, especially in the early years. The military origins of human spaceflight (and spaceflight in general) are no secret. Very few nuclear-armed missiles can't trace their origins somehow back to the V-2, and most human-carrying rockets were either originally weapons, or were designed by the same people who also designed weapons. The governments that funded putting things (human or otherwise) in orbit knew very well that they were mainly doing it to cover up development of military satellites and nuclear bomb launchers. This intention was naturally kept secret at the time, which is why the cultural narrative about spaceflight is so distorted, but it's well-established historical fact today, if you take the time to learn about such things. (I'm enjoying Teitel's Breaking the Chains of Gravity, if you're looking for an introduction to the topic.)

This was also the only real reason that military pilots were chosen to be the first astro/cosmonauts. The same essential skills could be found among civilians, especially during the earliest spam-in-a-can phase, when the spacecraft required no pilot, and the human inside was really just a big guinea pig. So why insist on military crews? Because they'd be working with classified military technology all day long, and Dwight Eisenhower personally decided it would be simpler for NASA to only recruit crews who already had established clearance to work with military secrets. The Soviet government made a similar choice, and it seems China has more recently done the same, all for pretty much the same reason: Military space travellers aren't extra-skilled, they're just less likely to sell your secret weapon designs.

It is true that military pilots are more likely to have fast jet experience, but it turns out that this experience doesn't necessarily translate to spacecraft flying skill any better than other types of piloting experience. And as spacecraft got bigger over time, and crews expanded beyond just the pilot, they started needing people with completely different skill sets, and that's where we start to see the military test pilot fall slightly out of favour. The Soviets were the first to embrace civilian crew, and today many of the most experienced Russian cosmonauts have no military background at all. The US followed along later, mostly during the shuttle years. Yet despite a growing list of purely civilian spacefarers, that line of military ones remains pretty solid too. And it's still because rocketry is considered, first and foremost, a military area of interest, with secrets that need to be kept from "tha baddies".

Violence level 1 is also complicated, because I certainly wouldn't say that everyone at that level is definitely equally violent. It encompasses everyone from those who are trained and willing to use some awful weapons, but simply never got the opportunity to use them, all the way to those who are technically military employees, but whose work is clearly non-violent and may never even contribute to violence, such as medical professionals. It's tricky to find a neat dividing line between the two extremes, though. A test pilot or weapons manufacturer may never actually use their weapon on anyone, but they are clearly developing it so that someone else can use it to kill people later on. So are they morally suspect or not? Senior commanders of military units may never go anywhere near the combat area, but it's hard to argue that ordering people's deaths at a distance is an ethically positive thing. And even logistics support people are indirectly responsible for deaths, when the food they deliver gets eaten by the guy who will go off to kill people. Delivering food clearly isn't violent, and yet if that food wasn't there, the guy doing the killing couldn't have hung around long enough to kill anyone, and the logistics people know that, which is why they deliver the food. It wasn't a coincidence that they fed the guy, it was part of a plan to kill people. So it's hard to draw a very clear, solid line between "good" and "bad" military employees. I think it's much simpler to view the whole military as a killing tool, and to be at least suspicious of anyone who works as part of that tool.

But that doesn't make my astronaut list that much clearer, which is a slight annoyance to me.

Violence level 2 is something I'd really rather not have, because it's ambiguous and imprecise, but unfortunately that's the best level of detail currently available to me. I'd much rather know for certain who is definitely level 3, and who can drop back to level 1. Unfortunately, around the time of the Apollo program, astronaut biographies started getting sanitised. Where fighter pilots had previously been very eager to boast about the people they'd killed, competing as if it were a sport, that publicly went out of fashion, and so it was no longer reported as clearly. We know for certain that John Glenn shot down 3 planes, possibly representing 3 dead pilots, in addition to the unrecorded number of people he killed in ground attacks. (That distinction in how much they valued - and thus recorded - air kills versus ground kills is noteworthy.)

At some point, the US military public relations people realised that a lot of the public didn't want to hear the gory details of war, didn't want to know how the sausage was made, and perhaps there was also a counter-intelligence argument for not boasting your war successes too openly. And so every published combat record from the Vietnam War onwards merely reads that the person took part in "combat operations" or "flew combat missions". That euphemism could mean anything from blowing people up, to helping others blow people up, to flying in circles aimlessly for hours, just so long as it's done within an area where fighting is happening. So, for my purposes, I'm stuck with level 2; some people put at that level may never have done any direct harm at all, but at the very least, we can say with some certainty that they made an effort to try to kill people. That willingness to be violent, I think, counts for something.

(I also wonder if there's something similar with column 1, the hunting thing. Has hunting become less popular than half a century ago? That would fit increasing urbanisation trends. Are animal-killing astronauts as common as ever, and the PR people just keep that off their official profiles now? Or describe it with euphemisms that I'm not spotting, like "hiking" or something? Maybe. I still think there's a general inclination to kill, whether humans or non-humans, that should produce a correlation, but the unexpected big void in column 1 makes that hard to check. Good news if it's a realistic void, at least.)

With that all clarified (I hope?), I'd like to point out a national distinction: Almost all the level 2's and 3's are American. It's possible that the Soviets/Russians simply never admitted that some of their cosmonauts had combat records beyond the few from the Second World War, but I think that's unlikely. The far more obvious explanation is that the Soviet Union didn't go to war nearly as often as the United States. From 1945 to 1990, the Soviet Union may have supported or encouraged or sponsored conflicts, but very seldom participated directly in any major way. The decade-long Soviet-Afghan War was the one big exception, and it is a little surprising to me that no cosmonauts seem to have emerged from that. Post-Soviet Russian conflicts have been much more numerous, but generally less intense and less persistent, mostly related to resolving post-Soviet borders by force. The Americans, on the other hand, have been incredibly violent for most of the last 60+ years, with heavy involvement in some of the biggest contemporary wars. Korea. Vietnam. The Gulf War. The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And always lots of smaller conflicts in between as well, with the possible exception of the Carter years. The Syrian civil war is probably the first time since the 1940s that the Americans and Russians have had comparable participation in the same conflict. Beyond the three main spacefaring countries, the most violent source of astronauts is France, with some noteworthy anomalies from Belgium and Vietnam.

Analysing and explaining all of this is a huge, textbookworthy topic of its own. My sole point for now is that it shouldn't be surprising if few Soviet/Russian military pilots had ever actually seen combat. This is even more true for Chinese taikonauts, as China has been remarkably peaceful for decades.

I think it's also important to avoid excessively monolithic thinking. Not all Americans (or Russians or Chinese) are the same, not all NASA administrators are the same, there has to be some room to consider individual and local quirks. One interesting example is that it was NASA that convinced the Russians not to take any guns to the International Space Station, and not the other way round.

The implications of this are worth debating. Does it mean that Americans are the Klingons? That soldiers are or are not responsible for their wars? I don't think this small data set is enough to be sure of too much, but it does get you thinking, I hope. The main reason I bring it all up here is to illustrate one point: Combat experience is not needed for good astronauts. Killing people doesn't make you handle spaceflight any better.


And so it's weird that NASA has evidently chosen to hire so many astronauts on the basis that they've killed before. It means that someone once sat down and wrote that in as a job requirement, a positive trait for potential recruits to have. I doubt they worded it exactly that way, but they didn't do it that many times in a row, hiring several dozen candidates with combat experience, purely by coincidence. If nothing else, they haven't viewed it as a negative trait.

To be clear, I'm not saying all of the non-military spacefarers are uniformly and perfectly good people. Some, I'm sure, are dicks. But they're dicks who haven't killed anyone, which is a better starting point. As an example, Schmitt's position as first purely civilian American astronaut is spoiled a little by his current deeply unscientific views on global warming, which he insists on publicly espousing. That's not really a violence-related thing, but it does definitely dent his reputation - but less than if he'd shot someone, I think. Of course, some really are great; it's hard to criticise my two favourites, Ride and Jemison, for example. They weren't just non-violent, they actively worked to make the world a better, safer place. Jemison is still at it today, and Ride's legacy will hopefully continue on. Even some of the level 1's seem to have a lot of genuinely positive traits going for them; I'm fond of Hadfield and Cristoforetti, for instance, to the point that I strongly hope they wouldn't ever have pulled a trigger, if they'd been told to. But realistically, I have to concede that they probably would have. And I think that's one of my big conclusions here: If you join an armed organisation that deals primarily in violence, then your choices are automatically suspect to me. Either it means you accept violence, which is bad, or that you're so blind to violence and its consequences that you really shouldn't be trusted with anything more dangerous than a plastic spoon. If you actively oppose violence, your alternative solutions may not work, but at least you've chosen not to kill anyone.

I'm not certain I can draw anything else much more conclusive from this relatively surface-level analysis. I think there's enough unsettled about all of this to warrant a full PhD thesis, if anyone is looking for a topic.

Since I don't like ending on a hanging thread, I do have a couple little notes on smaller things I picked up on while writing this:

My recording of Joe Walker versus James Halsell is worth explaining a little. Both were involved in fatal vehicle accidents, but I've marked Walker as level 1 and Halsell as level 3. Walker's collision appears to have been a genuine accident, certainly not something Walker wanted or could have predicted or controlled. Halsell, on the other hand, intentionally drove drunk, knowing full well what that entails. That's not anyone's fault but his own, and if that caused him to speed, or if he would normally speed while sober too, then the blame still lies with him.

Linnehan's involvement in the Marine Mammal System is as laughable as it is tragic. What these veterinary quacks do to dolphins and sea lions is simply cruel (whether you accept war or not), and if we're supposed to value fighting in wars (which I clearly don't) then surely this should be viewed as a cowardly technique anyway.

There's a fairly unsurprising gender split, with relatively more women in level 0 than men, and none confirmed in level 3.


The space tourists, even less surprisingly, are all level 0. I did briefly wonder whether Shuttleworth might have been conscripted into the South African army (I wasn't sure whether he was young enough to have missed the conscription years), but it's apparently fairly widely known that he skipped the country to avoid that. Elon Musk did the same, which is part of the reason it disappoints me that he now wants to feed rockets to the US military. That's kind of hypocritical.


Mark Kelly is an idiot. After an assassination attempt on his wife, former member of Congress Gabrielle Giffords, the two of them remained pro-gun. Kelly himself has dropped bombs on people (I have him at level 2 above), but it's not unheard of for the physical distance between pilots and their targets to lend them some very unrealistic emotional distance. They don't often actually watch their victims die, from way up in the sky. But you'd think that when 6 people die, including a poor fucking little 9 year old girl, and his own wife is horribly injured, along with a dozen others, then surely he'd get it? Surely he must, however briefly, have drawn the connection between what he did and what Loughner did? If he did, then it was a very weird connection he drew, simply calling for the mythical "bad guys" to have their gun access restricted, while he and the "good guys" kept theirs. (I'm pretty sure there's a fair bit of psychology or cultural anthropology research that could be done on these people.)

This has been a pretty grim, disheartening post to research and write, so let me end on Leland Melville's official astronaut portrait. It's hard not to be happy about this.