My list of big maritime things for the year may not look much like maritime at first, but, believe me, it is. To begin with, spaceflight’s closest real life cousin is nuclear submarine operations. Next, maritime is synonymous with international cooperation and, last, all technologies interbreed, whether up or down. Nothing is more difficult to design than a good space toilet, or a good small craft head and it takes dedicated individuals to make it happen.
1. The Martian
I actually first read the book in 2015, and it became an instant hit in our office. It was less of a hit with those few members of my family who are not of the engineering persuasion, but when the movie came out this year, everybody, engineer or not, loved it. It was rumored that people even left the theater thinking that the movie described a real event. Go to Mars? Yes, we can. And the author of The Martian, Andy Weir, deserves a big shout out for his individual drive and vision on thinking big.
But going to Mars is very, very difficult and as “The Martian” shows, growing food away from Earth will be a big deal. Going to Mars is like eating an elephant; it has to be eaten one bite at a time. Growing food in space is one of those bites and in 2015 space station astronauts first ate food (lettuce instead of potatoes) grown in space. Not a giant leap, but surely a small technological step that we can build on.
Meanwhile Elon Musk and his cohorts and competitors are also moving the pegs. Just a few days ago a Falcon 9 rockets returned from space. It wasn’t easy and the news described it as “finally” being successful, even though it had failed only two times before. But what most of the media doesn’t understand is that if it ain’t hard, it ain’t worth doing, and, actually, Space X made it look easy.
I receive Aerospace America magazine as a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The December issue is my favorite because all technical committee chairs provide a one page wrap up of technology milestones in their subject (and it came out too early to mention the Falcon 9 landing). Amidst all types of milestone advances, the Aerospace Power Systems Technical Committee made almost a side bar mention of a Fission Powered Sodium-Potassium Heat Exchanger 12 kW Electric Sterling Power Conversion Unit under development by NASA and Sunpower. There is no shorter name for this, but it is basically a nuclear powered 12kW electrical generator. This thing has been in slow pace development since 1993, but just the most recent picture of it convinces me that this thing is an important step ahead.
Today, big nuclear is easy, we have done it on land and on ships. Small nuclear is also easy, since a hot fission source can generate small amounts of power through radioisotope thermoelectric generators. But 12kW (about 16 Hp) is where things get interesting, this thing could power a car or a small boat, or a deep space habitat, and it is scalable. It shows that even slow paced programs can make real progress. This particular unit did not run on fission power, it just heated the sodium potassium with an electrical heating coil, but the inclusion of a nuclear reactor is almost trivial in this design.
Most interestingly, it was quite a job to find web references on this program, which then makes one think: What else is out there that is going to change the pegs that people are working on today?
So then, all of a sudden, there is a worldwide climate change agreement. Where did this come from? Who would have thought? In looking at how this deal came about, it became clear that while warfare is mostly logistics, diplomacy is mostly persistence with a deep understanding of game theory concepts. It was not the only diplomatic coup of the year, since there also was an Iran Nuclear deal, and renewal of US/Cuba relations. But to get all the countries in the world to sit together and to build a framework of cooperation takes blood, sweat and tears and to make it happen is a landmark achievement. Everybody has their opinions about these deals, but, in international trade and relations, history has shown that a deal is vastly more preferably than no deal, and if a deal does not work out it is relatively easy for the most powerful player in the world to force a new deal. These deals are not the Munich Agreement; these deals are SOLAS or MARPOL.
Before the Climate Deal and the Iran deal, M&O was faced with similar obstacles in performing a study on marine oil pollution for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and in June a smaller, but no less complex, effort resulted in a landmark conference on the subject in Wilmington, NC. It was blood sweat and tears, but it was worth it, since if it ain’t hard ……..
M&O has been involved since its founding in 1875 with ferries. We deal with ferries on a worldwide basis including countries as remote as Oman, but the New York/New Jersey ferry system development may be the most interesting of all. Whether it is construction supervision or ferry system design, new technologies, many of which were exploding in 2015 are changing and will continue to change ferry design for the years to come. As far as ferries systems go, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In the winter issue of Sea History, Dr. William Thiesen wrote an article on Cutterman Hugh George Campbell. The five page article does not even begin to do justice to this very interesting, skilled, selfless and historically significant mariner. And while the article was very informative, it left me with many questions about this person’s life. Strangely, very little additional information exists about this fascinating American, who, as a sailor and leader of sailors, should rank among Cook, J.P. Jones, Nelson and De Ruyter. We should never forget that for every luminary there are many more non-luminaries of equal character whom we do not know, simply because the light never directly shone on them. May 2016 be the year of the unsung great mariners.
10. Pete’s Banjo
Pete’s Banjo is a reinterpretation of a 19th century era small commercial sailboat. The story is both simple and complex. And both stories are fun. Here is the simple story: On a tiny budget, with lots of innovation, a small band of enthusiasts worked together joyfully to create something that will serve the community for years to come.
11. Sandy Hook National Marine Sanctuary a Resolution for 2016
Every now and then government opens up a crack where citizens actually can make a difference. One of those opportunities is the National Marine Sanctuary nomination process. Sandy Hook Bay and its Navesink River and Shrewsbury River estuaries will make a great candidate for a National Marine Sanctuary. It is worth making a strong start in 2016. It could be a simple story: On a tiny budget, with lots of innovation, a large band of enthusiasts worked together joyfully to create something that will serve the community forever. It will undoubtedly be more complication, but if it ain’t hard ……
12. El Faro
But let’s not forget the day to day realities. Shipping is big, it is powerful and it is mostly safe, but accidents can happen. In 2016, M&O, and many other stake holders and experts, will be trying to figure out what happened so it will not reoccur. Meanwhile, our thoughts are with the mariners who lost their lives and their families. May their families find new strength and grace in 2016.