Friday, July 16, 2010

A big day in history

Today, June 16, is:

  • the 65th anniversary of the first test of an "atomic" bomb outside Alamogordo, NM;

  • the 41st anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the first mission to land men on an extraterrestrial body, the Moon.

It is also the 37th anniversary of Butterfield's testimony that President Nixon had been taping conversations inside the oval office, tapes that eventually showed he was guilty of obstruction of justice and other major felonies, but I want to talk about technology today.

So, in the context of "if we can put men on the Moon, why can't we stop the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico", what is the relative difficulty of these three tasks?

Based solely on the time required to complete the project, the Moon mission was by far the most difficult and complex. The project started more than eight years earlier, before we had even put a man in orbit. Although the Saturn I was already on the drawing boards as an orbital launch vehicle, the Saturn V project started in early 1962. After about 4 years of research and development, there were two unmanned test flights (both showing problems that had to be fixed) before the first manned test flights. Even though we rather boldly used the first manned test flight to orbit the Moon, almost two years elapsed between the first unmanned test and the Moon landing mission. Given that this was a very high priority project that went as fast as possible (too fast, at times, resulting in three astronaut deaths) with essentially unlimited resources in the early years, it is almost nonsensical to compare design and construction of the "capping stack" to a Moon mission.

Next would be the development of the plutonium bomb first tested on this date in 1945. Plutonium was first isolated in 1941, so it only took four years to determine that one isotope, Pu-239, could be used as a nuclear explosive (it was already known that U-235 could be used that way) and figure out how to produce kg quantities of it and turn it into a weapon. Like the Moon mission, this was a "money is no object" project on the same scale as radar and a pressurized bomber that could fly at high altitude and carry a payload big enough to drop an atomic bomb. So, on the basis of time alone, this was easily half as difficult as going to the moon even if you include the U-235 weapon and the need for both radar and that bomber if the project was going to succeed.

Of the two bomb projects going on at the same time, the Pu-239 weapon was by far more complicated technically. The only challenge with U-235 was producing the purified isotope. (That remains the reason it poses the greatest threat for the spread of nuclear weapons, but that is a topic for another day. Our confidence in the U-235 weapon was so high that it was never tested before being used on Hiroshima.) With Pu-239, you had to produce the isotope essentially one atom at a time in a reactor and then separate it chemically from a huge quantity of preposterously radioactive material. Even then, you have to figure out how to assemble it into a weapon that will explode. That was enough of a challenge that it required a test before being used in combat a few weeks later. Again, based on time alone, four years does not compare to a few months of work to develop the capping stack (and the tools to cut off the pipe and install it) as well as the temporary fixes that were used until it was ready.

It is a good thing that fixing the mistakes made by BP was not nearly as complicated as rocket science or weapons. Those took years, this took months.

As I said yesterday, I don't think most people realize how long it takes to design and build something, even something as "simple" as a highway. You don't notice it until construction begins, but the work was going on for years before that.


Unbalanced Reaction said...

Is it really done though?

Even if the cap works, how long will the clean up take?

Doctor Pion said...

Cleanup (which means the natural degradation of the oil, not removal of it) will take years and may take decades.

I suspect that a large fraction of the oil got treated with those dispersant solvents and will slowly work its way up from the deep cold layers of the Gulf. There is still oil left from the Exxon Valdez. Now it is really cold in Alaska, but it is also cold at the bottom of the Gulf. They said it is 40 deg F at the well head.

And does anyone know if those dispersants will keep bacteria from breaking down those oil droplets? That is a question for the chemists and biologists ...