Monday, October 12, 2020

E-Dorm Life- The Batcraft

Since these college stories mostly come from pointless demonstrations, learning performing skills, and 
embarrassing myself in front of the opposite sex, I thought I’d highlight some actual engineering learning for a change.

I already was applying to the graduate school in Mechanical Engineering with a design concentration. Therefore, I was looking for a Design Capstone Course for my last official undergraduate semester.  I had heard of the project to build a flight worthy, scaled down version of a P-38 Lightning World War Two fighter.  I had also seen it in progress in the large lab in the bowels of the engineering center, looking incredibly cool.  I still had some leftover mental connections to my original plan of aeronautical engineering, wasn’t completely scarred by my World War II class and it seemed an interesting and fun fit. I located the Professor in charge of it, and learned the propeller drive aircraft was on hold, but he started selling me on another project of his that needed members. All I had to do was sign up for his “Mercury Lightcraft” class.

Note- This was well before checking for red flags on the internet was an easy thing. If it were, I likely would have found a poppy field full of them.  Scott's former roommate tipped me on a few once the class started, but a shade too late.

The professor transferred from Berkley California and clearly fit in with their free thinking atmosphere when he was there.

The reason the P-38 project stopped was the main support beam for the wings went through the cockpit, directly where the pilot’s head belonged. Therefore, no one could fly it, and if they cut the beam, the wings would fall off.

The theory behind the Mercury Lightcraft was…unique.

“Mercury” came from the capsule size, seating one astronaut at this point in the project, with larger ones to follow successful development.

As for “Lightcraft:”

Once it reached outer space, it would fly around like a normal rocket.

Yet for initial take off, it used Magnetohydrodynamics. Yes, the same thing that propelled the Red October, but louder.  The professor pointed out they could alternate the frequency the beam rotated to make the pitch change and play the theme from Close Encounters.

It achieved Magnetohydrodynamics by super-heating the air around an angled ring that circled the craft.  Since there was an early connection to the "Star Wars Missile Defense" system, the super-heating came from a satellite based NINE GIGAWATT ENERGY BEAM, fired directly at the craft, which I feel I should point out was full of rocket fuel.

In this way, the take-off was described as similar to a “VTOL Harrier Jet.”  

The landing however, before reengaging with the massively powerful energy beam, was likened much more to “a rock.”

Early in the class, we learned the history of the project, where the nine-gigawatt beam was originally a laser.   However, that meant that the take-off couldn’t occur at all if it was overcast that day.  This is because a passing cloud would instantly transition the Lightcraft from “Harrier” to “Rock” mode.   Sometime before I signed on, it switched to a microwave beam. 

We learned this could easily penetrate clouds.

We also learned it could easily air fry any passing bird which may be why they decided on a ground based beam after I finished my time in the class.

Once we got a background, the class broke into teams for each subsystem.  Some sections were electronics based like the controls, thermodynamics based like the propulsion, or material based like the surfaces.  There was a mix of majors in the class.  I latched on to the most mechanicalish part I could pick: the structure.  Basically, I was on the team to design the skeleton of the thing.

In hindsight…

Well, in hindsight maybe picking a completely different project would have been a good idea.

In hindsight, I originally was thinking that the other guy on my team was probably older than the rest of the mix students in the class and he had come back to school to finish or add a degree judging by his appearance and lack of focus.  At least I thought that until I went back into my college yearbooks for something else and found him listed in another Freshman dorm the same year I started.  However, I found absolutely no evidence of him in the book of the year I graduated, which was also the year we took this class.  That leads to a whole other theory.

Whatever, the case, at the time I let him take point, which was a huge miscalculation. Far more than now, back then I was much better at technical calculations that people based ones.

He was of the firm opinion that we couldn’t do anything with the structure until ALL OF THE OTHER GROUPS gave us their FULLY COMPLETED designs.  Yes, considering we all were in the same class that ended at the same time for everyone, I realize this is completely false NOW.  It came to a rather vicious head during an update presentation.  We had some basic sketches, not that it mattered since he screwed up the talking points of the overheads I made anyway.

I got to experience the unbridled joy of having the professor ask us, in front of the entire class, if we felt this was an amount of work that reflected the amount of time that had passed.

I have worked extremely hard to stay out of management and on the technical path for my twenty-seven year engineering career. Also, in that time I have cultivated a reputation as one of the “people who do stuff.”  I believe this moment was the initiation of that attitude.

I met with my “partner” after class, and pointed out that the structure was directly split into the top and bottom halves.  I selected the bottom half, sent him on his way with the top, and immediately contacted the landing gear team and other groups for best guess dimensions.

I designed the lower section in thirds, as there were three landing gear legs.

He designed the upper section in quarters, as…
He wanted me to have another embarrassing presentation moment in class, I assume. 

However, that ceased to be my problem and I left him to explain it to our professor.

The “Batcraft” was the name Jesse gave my contribution to the space race after I made a small cardboard model of the structure (both top and bottom, since I was close to not talking to him at all after a couple of more weeks.)  The only paint I had was gloss black, and…
There ya go.

The semester was winding down and we had to get ready to present the class’s work to a representative from NASA, the organization funding the project, as part of our final grade.

In those ancient and crusty days, we all had to do our drawings at 1:1 scale on the CAD system to insure they’d align.  I also had to use a light pen. Yes, we were one-step up from carving the images onto stone because I am, as my daughter constantly reminds me, a fossil.

I completed my massive scale drawing…and only drawing. We were pre-solid models at that point. 


Then I started adding the dimensions.  I was almost finished, scrolled over to check the length of a section I had detailed earlier…and the dimension was gone.

Initially I thought the looming finals and deadlines affected my brain and I had forgotten that region.  I added it, went back to where I was, and that other dimension was gone.  I zoomed out as far as I could to put the finishing touches on and watched my dimensions wink out like the stars in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  The system simply could not handle the level of detail on that file size.

With yet another round of my profanities echoing throughout the computer lab, I set about deleting every dimension and printed the drawing out “naked.”  Then I carefully carried the beach towel sized piece of tracing paper back to the dorm room.  Muttering a quick thankful prayer that it was the “big room,” I arranged all of my textbooks on the floor into a makeshift drafting table.  Then I spent the night hand-writing in every single dimension on the lower structure of a spacecraft.

It is the closest I came to a work related all-nighter, finishing just before Five AM, and getting enough sleep to preserve my record for staying awake all night only for goofy, non-work related items.

The end of the term came, I had my report, my giant drawing with hand filled in dimensions and my overhead projector transparencies…also with hand filled in dimensions.  Over Thanksgiving, I brought up my one interview suit for the presentation to NASA.  As I waited in the “wind tunnel” along the Engineering Center and Lecture Halls with the icy, snow blustering,  December breeze cutting through my suit, my “partner” (the loosest use of the definition of that word in history) showed up.  He was wearing torn jeans, and a sweatshirt I am convinced doubled as a handkerchief.

In yet another moment of command thinking that this project thrust upon me, I immediately sent him home to change.

The professor chose that moment to come out and get the next group due to present.

Yeah, that was us, but we currently weren’t a group more than we usually weren't, which was "significantly not a group."

Sorry, that sentence got away from me.

I explained the executive decision I made, and instead of flunking me on the spot as expected, he complimented my judgement and brought in the group that worked on another sub-system who were there early, because they actually were a group.  This is presumably because, unlike my group, all of their members were focused on a successful completion.

The guy finally came back dressed relatively presentably and we did our, distinctly separate, spiels.

At the final one on one meeting with the professor, I felt like I'd helped advance what, in spite of my goofy explanations, was an extremely cool idea.  He called me an asset to the project and class, rating my work an “A” for the semester.

Woo! Go Me!

Comedy Epilogue-

About five years later, Nick had his friends, Jim and Chris, Up the Lake for a weekend of fishing, poker and beer.  I certainly wasn’t going against a lifetime of fishing apathy, but they were kind enough to invite me to join in the other two. For reasons I can’t recall after we finished playing cards, but most likely due to one the other two items I was invited for, I ended up explaining the Lightcraft to them.

Given my general storytelling nature (and again…the beer) it included a great deal of sound effects and bizarre hand gestures.  Jim stared at me intently the whole time, looked at the other guys when I finished, pointed to me and proclaimed:
“I know exactly what he’s talking about.”

Then looked back to me and yelled:

“What the hell is a gigawatt?”

Shortly after that, likely for more beer related reasons, Jim yelled, "PETE PUMA, GO!" and we both started dueling impressions.  This prompted Nick to look in our direction and state, “Give me one of whatever they’re having.”

It’s true; everything eventually does lead to Up the Lake Stories.


longbow said...

Early in the semester Don came in flustered. He looked at me, handed me the lightcraft syllabus or summary and said (paraphrasing) "You're not an engineer but you've got common sense. Read this and tell me what's wrong with it"

I scanned..

Me: Do we even have sensors and computers that can keep a beam on it at the right intensity all the way up through the layers?

D: assume we do

Me: well, what's it going to do when there's no more air?

D: (points to part about on board propellant)

Me: Oh, well now you're firing a high powered laser at a pressurized flammable container.

D: Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

Jeff McGinley said...

My guess is that's why the program retired when the professor did.