Mark Grossman: Robo-Cheetah & its Little Sister, the Wildcat

6 February 2014

Developed for DARPA by Boston Dynamics, the robo-cheetah’s claim to fame is its speed.  Modeled after the real-life cheetah, this robot boasts a “cat-like spine,” which “flexes and extends” with the robot’s galloping stride. And it gallops — “constantly tipping forward, falling, and regaining equilibrium with every step.”  After the development of the first prototype, in 2011, it was showcased running at speeds of up to 18 mph by March of 2012.  By September, it clocked 28.3 mph – faster than the fastest human runner in a hundred-yard dash.

Of course, with all the excitement, Robo-Cheetah still had a couple issues that needed to be ironed-out before it could go bounding across a battlefield.  It was running at high speeds, but it was only running on a treadmill.  Still, it was about ready to jump off the treadmill and onto, at least, flat ground.

It’s biggest problem was that it was still “tethered” by a power cord.  In other words, it had to be plugged into a wall socket to get the juice it needed to move.   There’s no portable power pack for this ‘bot that can store enough juice to let it run free.  Portable power supplies are a big issue in robotics and one of the biggest challenges to maximum performance.  There’s a tradeoff.  You need enough power to allow the ‘bot to operate for long stretches of time.  You, also, need a power pack that’s light-weight enough for the ‘bot to carry.  But, with a light enough pack, there’s not enough power to run the ‘bot.  And, with enough power, the pack (and ‘bot) become so heavy that, now, . . . there’s not enough power.

But, soon, there were more than these technical challenges – there were challengers.   The first competitor was MIT. The Biomimetic Robotics Lab at MIT, also under the sponsorship of DARPA, was, and is, working on its own version of the robo-cheetah.  MIT is trying to recreate the running movement of the real cheetah.  They’re more public with their work.  The MIT website shows their version of Robo-Cheetah.  Their robot can’t run as fast as the Boston Dynamics model, but MIT’s model boasts a “highly efficient leg motor, imitation tendons, and a responsive tail.”  With these improvements MIT’s Robo-Cheetah has a rhythm and movement completely different from other four-legged ‘bots.

MIT’s Robo-Cheetah, also, “will” run on a battery (but it, too, is still plugged into a wall-socket).  Unlike the other Robo-Cheetah, MIT’s uses a surprisingly simple and more effective way of regulating its leg motion – one without the usual sensors and complicated computer feedback-loops that were, and are, still a common part of robotic technology.

But what’s so important about imitating a real cheetah?  The robo-cheetah is one of a group of DARPA-funded projects of applied biorobotics.  To meet DARPA’s requirements, drones must be built to perform more like . . . wildlife.  The term “biomimetics” or “biomimicry” is used to describe the development of technology designed to imitate and replicate the activities of biological systems and organisms.   But, why imitate nature?  Well, “if you want drones that work in a particular way, and the only known example of such performance is a biological organism, you’ll either have to imitate it or forget the project altogether.”

The need for walking (rather than rolling) robots is a prime example.  The jeep took “a basic automobile and raised the center of gravity, increased the size and scale of the automotive suspension system and produced spectacular off-road performance for a machine with wheels.”  But the wheel, itself, was limited.  Human beings, horses, mules, and dogs can all travel over terrain that would be impossible for any wheeled vehicle to handle.

How do you design a ‘bot that travels over rough terrain like a mule?  Well, you design it . . . like a mule.  And Boston Dynamics “Robo-Mule” (later, renamed “BigDog”) was the first in a new line of bio-inspired “walking” robots.  But, again, why a cheetah?  Is it just a cool sounding name, or the sleek look of the moving animal? No. There’s something special about cheetahs that DARPA wants to capture in robotic performance.

Robo-cheetah is being designed to move, quite specifically, like a cheetah.  Unlike Robo-Mule (“BigDog”), Robo-Cheetah is meant to be ultra-speedy and agile, able to “chase and evade” like the actual animal.  Designers are working on getting it to run at Cheetah speed, but their ultimate ambition goes much farther than that.  They hope to design a ‘bot that can run faster than any animal on earth — as fast as 70 mph.

Robo-Cheetah will have clear military applications, including emergency and disaster response.  But DARPA has hinted at performance that might improve on nature.  At least, humans might be able to do things with Robo-Cheetah you’d never try with the real thing – including uses in “advanced agriculture and vehicular travel.”  Just think.  Riding a Robo-Cheetah!

Of course, the pressure rose with two Robo-Cheetahs in development: The speedy one by Boston Dynamics and the graceful one by MIT.  But, the race got even tighter when another competitor came out of left field — the Robo-Ostrich.  Ostrich?  What’s an ostrich got to offer in this race?  It’s a bird, and it can’t even fly.  Well, fly it can’t, but maybe it doesn’t need to because the ostrich is the fastest land animal on earth.

DARPA has funded the joint effort of MIT and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in a project to develop a robot that walks and runs.  But the end result of this latest effort will be the first robotic biped in the DARPA arsenal.

Robo-Ostrich is designed not just to walk, but to run and run fast.  Although the first full prototype has yet to be designed, the working computer simulation has legs and is hitting speeds of 27 mph.  Impressive, again, because this is about the speed of the fastest human runner in a hundred yard dash.

Robo-Ostrich’s designers are only hoping for a maximum speed of 50 miles an hour – faster than the fastest ostrich clocked at 43 mph.  On the other hand, this is a bit slower than the 70 mph Boston Dynamics is hoping for Robo-Cheetah.   But there’s a whole ‘lot of hoping going on here.  Robo-Cheetah isn’t off the treadmill and Robo-Ostrich is a computer simulation.  Let’s just wait and see.

What’s the secret of Robo-Ostrich’s speed?  Two legs.  What’s so special about a two-legged robot?  Not only is a two-legged robot lighter than a robot with twice the legs, but its movements are more flexible allowing it to, among other things, “get through narrower spaces” and maneuver more easily around obstacles.  With such a flexible build, this robot, like other “be-footed” robots, is designed to negotiate rough terrain that would defy a wheeled-vehicle like a jeep.  Even on the most irregular surfaces, the finished ‘bot is expected to run (or walk) at a speed of 10 mph, more than twice as fast as a walking human being.

Well, with MIT pushing hard to the goal with both their robots, Robo-Cheetah and Robo-Ostrich, Boston Dynamics had to do something.  They announced their plan to take the lead in the race, by unleashing Robo-Cheetah from its treadmill.  They promised their Robo-Cheetah, unteathered, would hit the road in 2013.   And it did, but with a twist.

In 2013, the cordless “Wildcat” was shown galloping and running backward on flat terrain.  But, wait, what happened to Robo-Cheetah?  Why the little sister?

To speed up the development, Robo-Cheetah was . . . modified.  To get rid of its power cord and, then, off the treadmill and onto the ground, it had to lose some of its bulk and weight.   It also lost its electric motor and gained an internal combustion (gasoline powered) engine.   Even with the reductions in size and weight, it lost some of its treadmill speed — slowing from 28 to about 16 mph.

Now, it’s slower than the fastest human in a hundred yard dash. But, if its chasing you, you’d better get to safety in a hundred yards. Why?  Because the Wildcat will still be going strong and fast long after you’ve given out and fallen to the ground.

The Wildcat still only performs on flat terrain, but the plan is to, soon, have it walking on the same rough ground that its distant cousin the Robo-Mule/BigDog handles with ease.


Mark Grossman: Insectothopter — The First and Only Insect-Sized Drone?

6 February 2014

There are rumors that Robo-bees will be shoving honeybees out of the way any day now — but these are only rumors.  Sort of like the persistent rumors suggesting that the U.S. Government secretly developed and used insect drones decades ago.  Given the substantial problems with the current development of controllable, insect-sized flying robots, it’s fair to assume that a robotic insect would have been impossible as far back as the 1970’s.  However, our assumption would be wrong.  These rumors are true.

The CIA’s simple dragonfly snooper was operational in the 1970’s.  The relatively unsophisticated “insectothopter” was the product of the CIA’s Office of Research and Development and rolled off the assembly line almost 40 years ago.  Its tiny gasoline engine was used to make its four wings flap.  However, the insectothopter was scraped because of its inability to fly in a crosswind.  So, with the shelving of the insectothopter, the development of robotic insects ended — only reappearing with the modern resurgence of robotic research.  Or did the U.S. Government secretly continue to develop insect drones?  Again, there are rumors. [7]

Is it possible that some agency has developed a secret, advanced version of the insectothopter?  Sources at the CIA have declined to comment.  When questioned about the possibility of the secret development of flying drone insects, an “expert in unmanned aerial vehicles,” retired Colonel Tom Ehrhard, simply said, “America can be pretty sneaky.”  [8]

On that less than comforting note, we can reconsider another rumor — the rumor of the dragonfly robots.  At recent political events in Washington D.C. and New York, several persons have reported sighting something that they described as a cross between a slightly oversized dragonfly and a miniature helicopter.  Perhaps, these witnesses have mistaken real insects for robots . . . or perhaps not. [9]


Mark Grossman: A Robot By Any Other Name — “Robo-Ostrich” or “Fastrunner?”

9 January 2014

You’re a defense contractor working for DARPA.  Instead of being asked to develop a flying robotic drone, you are contracted to design and build a robot that runs fast and can walk through rough terrain.

So, you design your robot to imitate . . . a bird?  Yes, a bird.  The world’s fastest running animal is a bird.  A flightless bird.   The ostrich.  In fact, the ostrich can run so fast, it’s probably never felt the need to fly.

DARPA has funded the joint effort of MIT and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in a project to develop a robot that walks and runs.  Past DARPA-funded projects have resulted in the quadrupedal robots, BigDog, Robo-Cheetah and the Wildcat.  But the end result of this latest effort will be the first robotic biped in the DARPA arsenal.

Robo-Ostrich is designed not just to walk, but to run and run fast.  Although the first full prototype has yet to be designed, the working computer simulation has legs and is hitting speeds of 27 mph.  Impressive considering this is about the speed of the fastest human runner – in a hundred yard dash.  But this robot could sustain that speed indefinitely.

This ‘robot ostrich’ probably will outrun you

The designers, however, aren’t satisfied with a mere 27 mph and are hoping to, eventually, develop a ‘bot that will reach a speed of 50 mph.  And the 50 mph mark would be another milestone on two counts.  First, real ostriches clock no higher than about 43 mph. And, second, real ostriches are the fastest land animals on earth.  So, the 50 mph Robo-Ostrich would not only beat the real bird, but would also beat every other land-based animal on the planet.

Although this ‘bot is formally named “FastRunner,” it has come to be known, informally, as Robo-Ostrich.  Why?  Because the only way to develop a robot that could run as fast as an ostrich was to build its legs to as closely imitate the legs of a real ostrich as possible.  By the way, this is called biomimicry – designing a technology to imitate nature in order to solve a complex human problem.

This Is What DARPA’s Robot Ostrich Will Look Like

Indeed, everyone is so excited about the Robo-Ostrich’s performance that it’s easy to forget that this robot doesn’t really exist.  Right now, the ‘bot is a computer simulation, which is only about 40% complete.

However, this isn’t the “damper” it once was because modern computer simulations are remarkably good.  In fact, modern computer simulations are so good that they quite precisely predict the performance of the real things they simulate.  So, if you can “get it right” on the computer, you can break out your hammer and wrench (figuratively speaking) and start building.  But the building phase for Robo-Ostrich is still “a ways off.”

The development of Robo-Ostrich is particularly significant because this robot’s working legs will incorporate advanced technologies to maintain the robot’s balance.  In the past, designers attempted to build complex systems into robotic legs that would monitor and respond to every variation in movement on every type of terrain.  This required large, on-board computers, complex programs, and equally complex mechanics to control every aspect of simulated walking and running.

However, a new non-linear approach is being used in the development of Robo-Ostrich.  Although complicated to develop, the new system will be of a much simpler design.

To oversimplify, imagine your automobile with computers in each wheel monitoring every bump and, then, commanding the suspension system to precisely respond in order to compensate for each disruption.  Readers familiar with automotive suspension will furrow their brow and ask, “Why?”  For almost a century, automobiles have used a spring that flexes when the tire rolls over that speed bump (for example) and, then, returns the chassis to its original position – no computers required.

Very, very roughly, a similar set of principles are being used to develop the mechanics of Robo-Ostrich’s legs.  Though much more complex than an automobile suspension system, the goal is a relatively simple, self regulating balance mechanism that allows the ‘bot to maintain its balance as it walks over uneven surfaces.

The real ostrich can grow to a height in excess of 9 feet with a weight as high as 250 pounds.  In other words, you wouldn’t want to meet the real bird – in a bad mood — in an ally — at night.

Robo-Ostrich, however, will only measure about half the height and weight of the real bird.  This relatively “petite” size and weight produce an intended advantage. The lighter weight makes the robot faster and lowers its power requirements extending its range.

The two legged design has distinct advantages over the past quadrupedal models.  Not only is a two-legged robot lighter, but its movements are more flexible allowing it to, among other things, “get through narrower spaces” and maneuver more easily around obstacles.  With such a flexible build, this robot, like other “be-footed” robots, is designed to negotiate rough terrain that would defy a wheeled-vehicle like a jeep.  Even on irregular surfaces, the finished ‘bot is expected to run (or walk) at a speed of 10 mph.

Mark Grossman: The Moon – Magnet for Controversy and Strife

2 January 2014

You thought you could go out into your backyard, late at night, for a moment of peace — to escape the madness of modern life.  Gazing at the stars, you begin to relax.  Then, the peaceful night sky is disrupted by the rising of that magnet for controversy and strife: the Moon.

Once a mythic icon of the evening sky, for some, the Moon is, and has been, a focus of rivalries, disputes, suspicions, conspiracies, and hoaxes — as well as the objective of no less than two planned attacks.  A few even suspect that the Moon, itself, is a cleverly contrived Trojan Horse.

Aside from its iconic status, the Moon doesn’t exactly occupy an exciting place in popular consciousness.  Beyond its “15 minutes of fame” with the 1969 Moon landing, our satellite is, generally, a kind of large rock floating in space.  There’s not much on the Moon and, aside from an occasional eclipse, the Moon really never does anything interesting.

However, the politicians of many governments, being much more . . . “insightful” . . . than the everyday people they are elected to serve, are fully aware of the urgent issues surrounding the Moon.  After all, why reform the banking system, adopt and implement measures to relieve widespread economic suffering, or institute strong reforms to assure personal privacy when more urgent and important “lunar issues” may be “threatening our way of life.”­


In 2009, the Moon’s fortunes waned when NASA suddenly lost interest in a promised return together with the planned establishment of a definite lunar base or outpost by 2020.  Perhaps, familiarity breeds contempt, but the Moon, as a celestial body, lost its sparkle for the space agency.  Now that our satellite is no longer a luminary of interest, NASA has turned its roving eye toward more exotic celestial bodies such as Mars and several asteroids.  One way or another, the Moon lost its bid for its big 2020 comeback . . . or did it?

NASA gets cold feet on Moon base plan


The Moon may have lost its base, but may gain a National Park.  The 2013 proposed legislation is called the “Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act.”  Of course, a national park is cheaper to build than a base or outpost.  Establish some paths, perimeter parking, a rest area or two, washrooms, and a few park rangers and you’ve got it.  However, the passage of this Act will be no sail on the Sea of Tranquility.  The Act’s stated intention is to protect the stuff the Apollo astronauts left on the Moon in the late sixties and early seventies, “from an onslaught of foreign and private visitors in the years and decades to come.”

However, the Act seems unnecessary in light of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  Signed by over 100 nations, that treaty assures that all space objects remain the property of the nation that launched them.  So, considering that the Apollo stuff is already protected, the proposed Act is supposed to add . . . what?  An extra layer of protection against lunar thieves?

The Act, however, mentions not just abandoned gear, but also “lunar landing sites,” which are defined as “all areas of the Moon where astronauts and instruments . . .  touched the lunar surface.”  Questions have been raised as to whether this is intended to preserve the first lunar footprints.  And this would be a problem.

The 1967 Treaty explicitly bars any claim of national sovereignty on lunar territory.  This would include parks and even footprints.  However, the proposed Act’s wording clearly “limits the park’s components to the NASA equipment itself.”  So, we can put concerns about the violation of 1967 Treaty to rest?

Not so fast.

It seems that space lawyers (yes, there have been space lawyers for over 20 years now) have made some ominous statements “noting that the last three Apollo missions deployed lunar rovers that covered ‘significant amounts of real estate’” In other words, our astronauts have “touched” a lot “of the lunar surface.”  Of course, that doesn’t mean anyone’s planning to violate the 1967 Treaty by making a claim to that territory.  U.S. space lawyers are just “making a list” of the all that territory and “checking it twice.”

But, as you continue to read the Act, the other shoe drops.  The “bill would also require that the U.S. apply to the United Nations for designation of the Apollo 11 landing site [as] a world heritage site.” What’s a “world heritage site?”  Apparently, a phrase intended to describe the violation of the 1967 Treaty – and getting away with it.  The Act’s mention of the U.N. application is hoped to elicit a “’warmer international reception.’”

Lawmakers propose Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act to open national park on the Moon

But, of course, the Act is necessary — especially since the first visitors in over 40 years have just arrived on the Moon.  Who knows what theirrovers might be up to, alone, on the Moon with all that Apollo “gear?”  Who knows what their rover’s “sticky fingers” might be picking up?  But the problems with China go far beyond lunar larceny.  Nailing down these lunar ownership issues is vital to preserve U.S. interests and to limit China’s lunar land grab.


Yes, when China announced its plan to establish its first Moon base in the 2020’s, shock-waves rocked the world.  Well, not quite.  Shock-waves rocked the all too narrow world of a few politicians and federal agencies competing for U.S. tax dollars.  The fear is that China will simply disregard the 1967 Treaty when it has maneuvered itself into “an optimum position to dictate Moon matters.”  (That is a quote)  After claiming important mineral rights, China may win the “Solar System Monopoly.” (Another quote)

And, once again, a self-occupied American public has been missing the Chinese lunar threat completely — distracted by petty concerns like economic survival, banking reform, protecting their personal privacy, and dealing with the effects of waging several ongoing, foreign wars.  And, all the while, China may have been planning to boldly seize key lunar real estate rights!  When will the American people learn?

Chinese-Manned Moon Base to Be Massive Lunar Land Grab?


Perhaps the loss of U.S. interest and the threatened Chinese land-grab caused Russia’s interest in the Moon to suddenly reawaken with plans to send an unmanned probe to the Moon in 2015.  The stated purpose of the probe is to pursue an exploration project on the Moon.  Beaten by the U.S. in the manned space race, perhaps, Russia hopes to regain its place in space.  Or, perhaps, China’s 2013 probe and Russian’s 2015 mission have another purpose.  Perhaps, these missions are intended to investigate whether or not the U.S. really landed on the Moon at all.

Russia plans to send probe to moon in 2015


In recent years, a small but determined group of theorists assert that no manned mission has ever reached the Moon.  The U.S., it is claimed, faked the 1969 Moon landing something like the events presented in a fictional novel and film, Capricorn One, in which NASA claims to have launched astronauts on a mission to Mars.  In fact (or, rather, in fiction), the “astronauts” remain right here on Earth where they work on a sound-stage participating in the filming of a fake landing on the red planet.

Capricorn One — Wikipedia

The lunar landing skeptics are divided into two groups.  One group believes that no manned mission has ever reached the Moon.  All the Apollo missions, in which a landing was said to have occurred, were faked by filming the supposed lunar sojourn on a sound-stage and presenting the film to the world as a real series of events.

Another group of skeptics believes that the 1969 landing was faked, but subsequent missions were real.  Apparently, NASA needed to spend fantastic amounts of time, energy, and money primarily to spread around false evidence to cover up the fact that there really had never been a Moon landing in 1969.

How many people believe this today? According to polls, about 20% of Americans (one in five) believe the U.S. never landed human beings on the Moon.  In other countries, polls show skeptics number about 25% (one in four).

Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories — Wikipedia

Of course, almost everyone should know that the U.S. actually did land on the Moon.  Look at the evidence.  The astronauts brought back rocks.  Right?

Well, . . . one of those rocks was recently found to be a fake, and several others are of dubious authenticity.  The latest fake was, in fact, a piece of petrified wood, which had been donated to the Dutch National Rijksmuseum by the estate of a former prime minister Willem Drees, Jr,  The rock was given to Drees by the U.S. ambassador to The Netherlands, J. William Middendorf II, on the occasion of a state visit by the Apollo 11 Astronauts.  After Drees death in 1988, the rock was donated to the Rijksmuseum, where it has remained.

In 2006, the date of the original gift, 1969, brought the authenticity of the rock into question.  Apparently, Moon rocks were distributed as gifts to officials of many countries, but at a much later date.  Tests revealed that the rock was, in fact, a piece of petrified wood.

Moon Rock Turns Out to be Fake

When NASA was contacted for authentication, the space agency admitted that no one ever kept track of the Moon rocks.  The number and whereabouts of most are unknown.  In fact, no record was made of who received what, when, or where.  The agency explained that continued Moon missions were anticipated.  So, there would eventually be so many rocks that they would become valueless.

In fact, the rocks have become extremely valuable.  One Moon rock went up for sale recently and was expected to bring about $340.000.00.  But this only complicates the investigation.  Who’s going to admit they got a fake Moon rock after paying $340.000 for it?

Apollo Moon rocks lost in space? No, lost on Earth –

Leaving the Moon rock quagmire behind, we can look confidently to the original video footage of the Apollo landings on the Moon as absolute proof of those landings.  That pristine video, unaltered, remains the greatest testament to the reality of our Moon landings.  Right?

Well, all the original video tapes of all the Moon landings were accidentally erased.  I’ll repeat that. All the original video tapes of all the landings, Apollo 11 through Apollo 17, were accidentally erased.  But surely NASA still has their copies of the tapes of these historic events?  No, there were no copies.

However, NASA obtained an old set of kinescoped news footage from CBS news.  Kinescope was that old video tape used by the news media in the 1960’s and 70′s.  Objects recorded with this type of tape tend to have washed-out shades of color.  But, even if the quality was poor, these were originals — recorded directly from the feeds at the time of each of the actual Moon landings.

So, even after the destruction of every one of the original video tapes, we still had original, unaltered video of the lunar landings.  These were the best proof that the U.S. landed on the Moon.

They were the best proof.  As soon as NASA obtained the video tapes from CBS, the agency sent them to Hollywood and had them digitally altered.  NASA said this was done to enhance the appearance of videos.  Apparently, no one considered that digital enhancement of the pristine copies, by definition, adds something that wasn’t there before.

NASA officials were dismissive of what they called “conspiracy theorists reactions” to the digital alterations. Although NASA assures that the digital enhancement adds nothing more than some cosmetic details, the video evidence has become a bit of a weak spot in the argument for the authenticity of the Moon landings.

Moon landing tapes got erased, NASA admits | Reuters

Still, so many of us watched the landing in 1969.  Well, we didn’t see it, but we watched it on TV.  Of course, it’s theoretically possible that it could have been a film.  But, really, who could have done those special effects at that time?  No one.  Well, no one except Stanley Kubrick . . . who had just filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey . . . with NASA consulting . . . to assure the authenticity of the film’s special effects . . . .

I’m getting that sinking feeling . . . again.


Some believe that Director Stanley Kubrick produced the footage for, at least, the Apollo 11 (and maybe 12) Moon landing(s).  As the story goes, Kubrick was recruited by the U.S. government shortly after his production of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

NASA had consulted during the making of the film, which featured scenes set on the Moon.  To create the lunar scenes, Kubrick used, and continued to perfect, techniques for producing special effects including rear screen projection to produce the appearance of an expansive lunar landscape on a sound-stage.

The tale of his collaboration goes like this.  Kubrick produced the (faked) films of the landings on the lunar surface for, at most, two missions: Apollos 11 and 12.   The launches and splashdowns were quite real.  The astronauts simply orbited the Earth during the period of the supposed missions, while the world was shown cleverly faked footage intended to pull off what would be the biggest con of all time.

The theory never gained a lot of traction primarily because everyone, in a position to know, denied that Kubrick had done anything of the kind.  In fact, there were significant problems with this theory from the start.  For example, Kubrick’s lunar surface, in 2001, is really quite different from the landscape that appears in the “actual” photographs of the lunar landings.

However, the story was so intriguing and amusing that it inspired amockumentary, The Dark Side of the Moon.  A mockumentary is the presentation of fiction as if it were fact by maintaining the tone of a factual account.

In The Dark Side of the Moon, old interview clips of officials in the Nixon administration were cut and used, out of context, to give the impression that these officials were responding to questions about Kubrick’s participation in the filming of a faked Moon landing.  Then, the makers sprinkled in scripted interviews with Kubrick’s friends and family who pretend to confirm the hoax.  The film is quite an achievement.  I watched, in disbelief, for about the first 10 minutes before I began to realize that something was “wrong.”  It’s a good watch.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The Dark Side of the Moon

However, an unexpected second chapter was added to the story of the Kubrick Moon landing hoax theory when film aficionados suggested that Kubrick hinted at his participation in the filming of a fake Moon landing – not in a later interview, but in a later film.

Supposedly, wracked with guilt over his complicity in, perhaps, the greatest hoax of all time, Kubrick finally unburdened himself of his guilt by confessing, but not in so many words.  Instead, he inserted clues in certain scenes and sequences of his later film, The Shining.

I watched Room 237 in which excerpts from the film, The Shining, are reviewed with voiceovers by several proponents of the theory, and . . . I just don’t see it.  In one scene, I agree that Kubrick is, at least, spoofing2001.  However, I don’t see a suggestion of the filming of a fake Moon landing in the spoof.  However, many film aficionados do and, perhaps, I’m not up to their level of acuity.

The reader is directed to the film, Room 237.  But, again, I think these theorists “are stretching the long arm of” symbolic association “clear out of the socket.”  But it’s a good watch.

Room 237

I still think the U.S. landed on the Moon when and where NASA said.  And, although the skeptics bring up some interesting questions, when they get to Stanley Kubrick as the creator of fake Moon landing footage . . . well, the “ice” of their argument “gets pretty thin.”

Maybe the most impressive thing about the idea that the Moon landings were faked is the number of people who believe it.  Not only do one in five Americans (20%) doubt the reality of the Apollo Moon landings, but the numbers seem to be growing.

Moon landing conspiracy theories

The skeptics do try to poke holes in the surviving evidence but, in the end, their strongest argument may be based on the lack of well preservedevidence.  Before the reader lightly dismisses the power of lost and damaged evidence, consider this.

Let’s say both sides “went to court.” The skeptics manage to hire O.J. Simpson’s lawyers from the 1994 trial.  Those lawyers, “The Dream Team,” would “shred” the surviving, badly preserved evidence in front of the jury.  When the smoke cleared, the jury would probably conclude that the United States never even got into space, least of all to the Moon.

Moon landings aren’t taken to court, but a lack of record-keeping and badly preserved evidence might alter . . . “how we’ll remember it.”  As things stand, the Moon landing skeptics are numerous and pushing for a historical “revision.”


In, perhaps, the oddest chapter of the increasingly “lunar” story of the relationship between humanity and the Moon, a nuclear strike on our satellite was planned in 1959.  Chronicled by Elizabeth Leafloor of Red Ice Creations, in “Gentlemen – Lets blow up the moon,” this surprisingly ill-starred plan gained considerable momentum in spite of its obvious dangers.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I.  World perception quickly shifted giving the Soviets the lead in the “space race.”  U.S. leaders, stinging from the public perception that the Soviets were “ahead,” responded with an unexpected idea.  Serious consideration was given to a plan to nuke the Moon as a way of demonstrating U.S. superiority — while the world watched the show.

One has to laugh (though nervously) at the thought of what led responsible U.S. military and political leaders to make this project choice.  Apparently, information had passed from a trusted informant to the U.S. Secret Service and, then, to the U.S. government that the Soviets were already planning to nuke the Moon.  The race was on.  Now, even the slimmest possibility that the Soviet nuking would be bigger and better than the one being planned by the U.S. was unbearable to American leaders.  And a simple nuking wouldn’t do.  They wanted a large, highly visible explosion that could easily be seen by everyone on Earth.

Of course, this should be a cautionary tale about the unreliability of intelligence gathering and resulting cold-war hysteria.  And it would be if the intelligence had been incorrect.  However, the Soviet Union wasplanning to nuke the Moon.  Their main planning focus?  You guessed it.  How to make the explosion so big that everyone on Earth would see it.

What saved the Moon?  The U.S. feared a “negative public reaction.”  At first, this reasoning seems only too obvious.  The project managers knew that there was a substantial likelihood that the missile would miss the Moon.  And, guess where it was almost certain go if it did “miss.”  Back to Earth — where it might have fallen on Disneyland.  Who knows?

U.S. leaders knew about the substantial danger of accidentally nuking the Earth by missing the Moon.  But, strangely, this wasn’t considered as one of the sources of the “negative public reactions” about which military leaders were concerned.

The military feared (1) public condemnation on the basis of its failure tomake the explosion look spectacular enough or (2) public condemnation over the “chance of radioactive material contaminating space.”  Yeah, I bet every man, woman and child on Earth shivered in terror at the thought of radioactivity being left . . . in space.  Forget the danger of the nuke falling to Earth and taking out Cleveland, we were all worried about radioactivity “contaminating” space.

Gentlemen – Lets blow up the moon


Remember when NASA suddenly lost interest in a promised return to the Moon and nixed its plan for the establishment of a lunar base?  Not content with the 2009 snub, NASA had to end the relationship with a few well-placed blows.

In what was called NASA’s kinetic lunar experiment, in 2009, the space agency steered two parts of the spacecraft LCROSS directly into the Moon as 9,000 kilometers per hour.  Why?  They were looking for water.  Sure.  That’s what I’d do if I was looking for water(?)  The agency was probably just mad about something and knew the Moon wouldn’t complain.  Anyway, NASA was expecting a large dust cloud, but none appeared.  However, the agency reported some water was detected.

Gentlemen – Lets blow up the moon

The most unexpected result of the kinetic impact was that the Moon was said to ring like a bell.  This suggested that the Moon might be hollow.  Indeed, there is a small group of people who believe that it is.  However, there is an even a smaller group who believe that, not only is the Moon hollow, but someone might be living inside.  But first questions, first.


Some questions are on the cutting edge of science.  The question of whether the Moon is hollow is, perhaps, past the cutting edge and a bit “out there.”

The idea that the Moon is hollow is strongly disputed by conventional science with the assertion that none of the data collected from any source supports the idea of a hollow Moon.  Scientific authorities, also, assert that the Moon never rang.  A statement by Neil Armstrong to that effect was the astronaut’s mistake.  Armstrong, we are told, mistook a lunar earthquake for the vibrating aftereffects of the impact of theApollo Lunar Module.  Supposedly, the mistake was an easy one for a first time visitor, like Armstrong, because the lunar earthquakes feel quite different than those we experience on Earth.

There’s really little sophisticated evidence for the Hollow Moon theory beyond the disputed accounts of the Moon ringing in response to impacts and a recent observation suggesting that the sub lunar surface may be honeycombed with caverns.

In fairness, however, lunar exploration has been limited and, at this date, what we don’t know about the Moon far outweighs what we do.  A lot more exploration is needed and the accumulation of a lot more evidence.

Hollow Moon


Stranger, still, are the assertions that Moon is an unnatural body.  Two members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Michael Vasin and Alexander Shcherbakov coauthored an article, in 1970, “Is the Moon the Creation of Alien Intelligence?” The article puts forward the theory that the Moon is a hollowed-out planetoid created by unknown beings with technology far superior to any on Earth.

Acceptance of a theory as fact, by the scientific community, is more a matter of probability than possibility.  While the “Spaceship Moon” theory is possible . . . anything is possible.  The evidence is too thin to give this theory much probability.  In terms of scientific orthodoxy, the “Spaceship Moon” theory is far from the head of the list of favorites.

Viewed from a different angle, Vasin’s and Shchebakov’s evidence could, indeed, be interpreted to suggest the possibility that the Moon is an artificial construction.  But this same evidence might also be used to support several completely different possibilities.  So, why settle on the least likely of several possible theories – an artificial Moon?

Part of the problem with the “Spaceship Moon” theory is that there are so many facts missing with the most glaring questions about the “lunar construction” left unanswered: the who and why.

Spaceship Moon Theory


You know what?  I don’t know, and I don’t care.  As far as I’m concerned, if the Moon is the product of intelligent design, I don’t want to know about it.  And, I certainly don’t want to meet the builders.


Well, forget all that “Close Encounters” — sci-fi nonsense about alien visitation and really think about the possibilities.  The return of the “Moon Builders” would present two really depressing scenarios.

First, this ingenious, alien race of amazing engineers and builders probably put the Moon here for a reason.  No matter how you slice it, the purpose has to boil down to surveillance and control.  Gee, where have we heard about those issues before?  No controversy there.  Huh?


The aliens return and introduce themselves.  After we get over the initial excitement, one of the aliens will escape to Earth and blow the whistle on the “surveillance satellite” revealing that the Moon is maintaining an unselective surveillance of every man, woman, and child on Earth.  Seeking asylum in some Latin American country, the alien whistle-blower will reveal that the Moon is not only watching and listening – the Moon is, literally, “recording everything.”

What happens next?  The alien leader will try to frame the debate in terms of metadata sidestepping the issue of complete data collection as well as the persistently ignored, though credible, allegations that the aliens are using the collected data to blackmail almost everyone . . . .

You know the drill.

Second, the Moon may not be such an engineering marvel for our returning aliens.  Suppose that, instead of being a “Death Star” type of construction project for these aliens, the Moon is something more like an iPhone.  In other words, these aliens are giants.  As a planet, we have enough on our plate right now.  We don’t really want, or need, a visit from a bunch of humongous aliens.


(1) The 1967 Outer Space Treaty seems more than adequate protection for the Apollo gear from visiting lunar thieves. China’s there now, and Russia plans to visit the Moon next year.  If anything turns up missing, there will only be two suspects: the Chinese and Russians.  And everyoneknows where they live.

(2) China can dictate lunar policy if it wants to. Who cares?  I can dictate lunar policy if I want to.  No one would listen to me, but why would anyone listen to the Chinese either?

(3)  I believe the U.S. really did land on the Moon — when and where and as often as the U.S. government says.  Why do a lot of people think otherwise?  Because the United States government has . . . ah . . . kept so many secrets and . . .  ah . . .  been “less than forthcoming” about so many other things that, now, everything it says it’s done, or not done, is up for grabs.

(4) If the Moon is hollow, I doubt that there’s anything interesting inside.  After all, it’s a rock, not a box of Crackerjacks.  I don’t believe anyone built the Moon unless the builders are members of the most unimaginative alien race in the galaxy and have way too much time on their hands.

I suspect that the Moon is just a big rock floating in space, as blissfully tranquil as its “sea” of the same name.  Little could that orb realize the focus of interest and activity it attracts from Earth, at least, among our “lunar-minded” politicians, economists, and scientists –  all of whom can focus, narrowly, on this distant rock, while carefully avoiding even a glance at the truly glaring and urgent issues all around them right here on Earth.

Mark Grossmann

Hazelwood, Missouri

2 January 2014

Mark Grossman: Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No, It’s a Flying Squid!?

24 January 2014

There have always stories about flying squid, but no actual photographs until Jun Yamamoto of Hokkaido University and his team took pictures of squid in flight in 2011.  Yamamoto said, “[W]e should no longer consider squid as things that live only in the water.”  The team’s study and photos appeared in Marine Biology.


Yamamoto and his team were in the Pacific Ocean east of Toyko tracking a shoal of squid.  Suddenly, about 20 of the 8 inch long creatures shot out of the water and into the air.  Squid launch themselves by shooting a jet of water.  Once in the air, these ten-legged creatures not only form make-shift wings by opening their fins and spreading out their legs, but even flap their fins to stay in the air little bit longer.  Gliding through the air for up to 100 feet, they fold in their fins just before re-entering the water.  Their whole flight takes about 3 seconds.

Squids ‘can fly 100 feet through the air’

Biologists, themselves, had seen and reported flying squid.  That some squid “fly” was an accepted scientific fact.  After their own sighting, Biologists Silvia Maciá and Michael Robinson of the University of Miami gathered similar reports from other scientists and co-authored a studypublished in 2004 in the Journal of Molluscan Studies.

Even before Yamamoto’s photos, there was something more than eye-witness reports.  There was, what you might call, circumstantialevidence.  What was the “smoking gun?”   A lot of “morning-after encounters” in which squid were found on the decks of ships — in the morning.  Researches assumed that the night-feeding squid had wandered into shallow waters.  When they were frightened, they “took flight” with some unlucky flyers landing, not in the sea, but on the deck of a ship.

Before the Hokkaido University team caught their photos of squid in flight, there was little photographic evidence.  Retired geologist and amateur photographer Bob Hulse had taken a few photos off the coast of Brazil.  But, for researchers, the details in these photos didn’t reveal a lot about how squid fly.

The photographs taken by Yamamoto and his team are a real achievement. Catching squid in flight is extremely rare and all agree that flights “happen so quickly.” “You really have to be in the right place in the right time.”

Fact or Fiction: Can a Squid Fly out of Water?

Mark Grossmann, 24 January 2014, Hazelwood, Missouri

Mark Grossman: Our Spotless Sun

30 January 2014

Sometimes, people see spots, sick people get spots, and leopards never change their spots.  But the sun is losing its spots.  Spots are almost the “trademark” of the solar sphere, but all that might be changing.  Sunspots are cooler and darker areas on the surface of the sun.  The spots are thought to be caused by powerful and complex magnetic fields forming, changing and breaking up inside the sun.  Surprisingly, it is just from these cool spots that solar flares suddenly flash out from the sun’s surface into space.

Unlike the leopard, the sun changes its spots, constantly.  However, the number of spots has always changed in a predictable 11-year cycle.  Beginning with the fewest spots at the solar minimum, the sun increases to a spotty and stormy solar maximum.  Then, it returns to the less spotty minimum, again, and starts over.  But something funny is going on.

In 2007, the sun sunk into one of its most spot-less minimums.  When this happened, in the past, the sun was expected to make up for its “quiet time” later — with even more spots, storms and flares as it approached its maximum.  So, solar observers braced for what they thought would be one of the most active “maximums” in recent history.   But, in 2008, the spotlessness continued.  With this much rest, everyone was sure the sun was ready to “party hardy.”  Everyone braced for the maximum of all maximums with maybe the most active cycle in recorded history.

Spots should have started picking up by the end of 2008 but, instead, the number of spots dropped down – way down.  Not since 1913, had there been a year with fewer sunspots.  And 2009, the year when activity should have increasing toward the maximum, nothing happened.  At least, nothing happened until December when a sudden burst of sunspots ignited hope of an expected rise towards the maximum.  But it didn’t happen.  In 2010, the “pick-up” in activity was definitely disappointing.

When the sun perked up, and spots increased, in 2011, there was a bit of hope, but 2012 was a big disappointment.  Not giving up on the maximum, some said they had the answer.  The solar maximum was doing a “double peak” – rising, in 2011, declining, in 2012, with 2013 as the big year for new sunspots.  It didn’t happen.  If anything, the “turnout” for new spots, in 2013, was dismal.  What’s the big deal about 2013?  Well, it should have been the solar maximum, but was weaker than most minimums.

The sun is so quiet that it’s causing real concern.  Has anything like this every happened before?  Well, there was the Maunder Minimum – a time during the last half of the 17th Century when sunspots just about disappeared.  There’s a certain comforting reassurance in knowing that what’s happening now has happened before.  But the Maunder Minimum may have come with a price.  The sun’s activity can affect atmospheric weather on Earth.  During the Maunder Minimum, Europe had a record cold wave.  Some called, and call, it a mini-ice age.  That may be too strong, but you get the idea.  It got really cold.

Could another Maunder Minimum cause an extended period of much colder temperatures?  Sure.  But we always think of any “decrease” in the sun’s activity as causing cold and any increase as causing warmth.  But things may not be that simple.  The sun’s effects on the earth’s weather might have less to do with hot or cold and more to do with disruption: extreme and unpredictable weather “events.”

More troubling than the decline in the sun’s activity is the speed of the decline.  A decrease in solar activity has never happened so suddenly in recorded history.  By checking polar ice cores, researchers can estimate increases and decreases in solar activity going back into prehistoric times.  What have they found?  Solar activity hasn’t decreased this quickly in the last 10,000 years.  So, we can’t look back to any period of history for the recorded effects of this kind of change.  Without that, we can’t be sure what these speedy changes in the sun’s activity may bring.

Some have expressed concerns that sun may be shrinking.  In the 17th century, French astronomer Jean Picard was the first to measure the sun’s diameter.  Working during the period of the Maunder Minimum, he found the sun to be larger than it is today.  Could that be true?  Well, instruments weren’t as reliable in those days.  The atmosphere, itself, affects the accuracy of the images from telescopes, so there might have been a “margin of error.

Researchers are, now, using space telescopes to try to get the best measurements possible. So far, careful observation from space seems to show that the sun is shrinking.  Or is it?  Again, more questions.  The problem with measuring a “quiet,” “spotless” sun is that it’s probably less “puffed up” than when it’s covered with spots and storms.  So, the “shrinkage” may just be a temporary effect of the lack of solar activity.

For the last 19 years, instruments have been measuring TSI — total solar irradiance.  TSI is the amount of energy the sun radiates out into space.  Has the sun been “shining on brightly” during this period of decreased sunspot activity?  No, the sun’s TSI has dropped.  What does this mean?  Well, once again, no one is really sure.  Our ability to get good information about the sun has never been better, but understanding what all that information means is “another matter.”

At least, the sun is taking a short nap.  At most, it’s burning down.  In the middle?  Well, no one’s sure exactly what our spotless sun is up to these days.





Mark Grossman: The Sun – CME’s and Auroras – Less Than We Hoped

30 January 2014

On January 9, 2014, we were expecting a light-show from space and, maybe, some electrical problems, but we didn’t get much of either.  The familiar Aurora Borealis was the expected light-show.  But if auroras are familiar, they aren’t frequent, at least not in most of the continental United States.  So, it’s a big deal for residents of most of the 48 states when the light-show dips down far enough to provide one of those rare opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis.

The aurora was visible, but over a much more limited area.  One commentator was puzzled by the problem saying, “We could see it in Norway.”  And I bet they could.  Even weak auroras are visible in, or near, the Arctic Circle, but it takes quite a solar flare, of a certain type, to treat people in the temperate zone to a good show.  Some were so disappointed that they were hoping for the development of a “geomagnetic storm.”  Do we want a geomagnetic storm?  Well, the hardcore aurora watchers might.  Although these storms have little effect on human beings, they can wreak havoc with our toys – electronics.

Normally, when I think of a storm, I think of something in the earth’s atmosphere.  It’s all about high and low pressure, moisture, dryness, heat and cold.  But geomagnetic storms are a different animal.  And “aurora watchers” watch the “space weather” forecasts.  They were disappointed when the “magnitude of the impact” was “downgraded.”  This all needs some explaining.

There is a constant flow of charged particles from the sun’s surface into space.  This “solar wind” affects the whole solar system.  As a matter of fact, the sun is source of all of this kind of“wind” in the solar system.  The energy from the sun, moving through the solar system is what is called “space weather.”  There’s more than “wind.”  There’s also a sort of “lightening” called solar flares.  And, then, there’s a special type of solar flare called a CME, coronal mass ejection.  If the sun’s out-flowing energy were a sea, a CME would be a tsunami.

The sun has spots – sunspots that are like caps trapping a lot of pent-up energy below the surface.  When the energy builds past a certain point, the cap blows off, and a CME shoots into space.  Unlike most solar flares, CME’s can be seen leaving the sun through telescopes on earth.  Like all flares, CME’s blow out of the sun in all directions.  Thankfully, very, very few are aimed at us.

As the flow of the regular solar “wind” hits the earth’s magnetic field, it produces visible auroras at both the North and South Poles.  The aurora at the North Pole is appropriately named “the Northern Lights.”  With stunning (and, today, rare) logic, the aurora at the South Pole is named “the Southern Lights.”

But when a CME comes along, like one we were expecting on January 9th, the show really gets rolling.  The steady solar wind changes into a blast of charged particles that is so strong that it extends the earth’s magnetic field stretching it farther and farther into space.  If you could see the earth’s magnetic field, when a CME hits, it would look like the tail of comet.  The magnetic field will stretch and stretch until, suddenly, the field snaps-back. This “snap-back” discharges a lot of electrical energy into the earth’s atmosphere.  Then, the stretch and snap-back happens — again and again — until the earth’s atmosphere becomes saturated with electrical potential.

Then, the aurora, usually limited to the Arctic Circle, extends southward getting bigger and brighter.  But as we’re watching the show, the earth’s atmosphere is becoming charged with electricity.  This isn’t a problem for human beings, but it can damage electrical equipment.  How?  Well, the atmosphere becomes so electrically supercharged that it becomes conductive.  In other words, electricity doesn’t have to stay in the wires.  It can flow out of the wires, through the atmosphere, and directly to ground.  The manufacturers of electrical equipment didn’t intend for electricity to behave that way.

Radios and telephones can stop working.  Electrical equipment that is “turned off” can be turned on by the electricity flowing through the air.  Engines can stall.  Power stations and transformer overloads can cause shorts and blackouts.  All sorts of electrical equipment can suffer serious damage.

And NASA forecasters were predicting a strong geomagnetic storm January 9th and 10th, with a risk of electrical problems.  This never materialized.  But if it had, we would have been, more or less, prepared.  One of the nice things about CME’s is that they can be seen from earth as they leave the sun.  Beginning its journey at a leisurely 7,000,000 miles and hour, a CME takes 2 to 3 days reach earth.  That means we get 2 to 3 days warning before it strikes.

Strangely, no one took the dangers too seriously until March of 1989 when a CME disrupted Quebec, Canada’s electrical power grid.  On March 9th of that year, aurora watchers were having a good old time as the Northern Lights stretched out of the Arctic Circle and blazed as far south as Texas and Florida.  At first, some serious short-wave radio interference developed.  When signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia were disrupted, there were Cold War fears of an impending nuclear strike.

By midnight, several satellites were experiencing difficulties with electrical malfunctions and false electrical readings.  The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission, experienced an alarming false reading from a pressure sensor during the storm that simply disappeared as soon as the “wave” past.

Then, Quebec, Canada’s circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure.  Since that time, a lot of special procedures have been developed to deal with CME’s.  Again, the advanced warning and predictable arrival time makes preparation much easier.  Still, we need expensive high-tech protective shielding to for all of our electrical equipment – great and small.  Don’t we?

Not necessarily.

There’s even a “down and dirty” method of dealing with the effects of an intensely charged atmosphere.  Turn everything electrical off.  You still might get some interesting effects from, and through, your electrical equipment, but no permanent damage.  You can just wait out the storm and “restore” you own private power grid to operation when the danger is over.