Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Estimating Mars settlement rates


How to get to an industrially self-sustaining Mars settlement in the minimum time?

Previously I've approached the broader problem in a book (http://www.caseyhandmer.com/home/mars) and several blogs, focused on a transport roadmap (http://caseyexaustralia.blogspot.com/2017/05/a-roadmap-to-industrially-self.html) and potential sources of money
(http://caseyexaustralia.blogspot.com/2017/09/how-to-fund-space-settlement-where-does.html). In this blog I'll attempt to integrate previous knowledge and make projections about time frames and costs.

Edit: Now all the data is available (csv) so you can slice and dice it.

In the previous post, I used the following graph to explain the relationship between population and self-sufficiency under a variety of scenarios, including constant and linearly increasing cargo capacity. It turned out that the final result did not much depend on how many rockets were available when, but the timescale certainly does. In this blog, I will build on the SpaceX exploration architecture. The most fundamental bottleneck is the rate of rocket construction and launch, so we will explore how construction rate affects the population and self-sufficiency timeline.

This graph shows a schematic relationship between population (horizontal axis) and mass self-sufficiency (vertical axis) under a cargo-constrained Mars settlement scenario. The settlement begins at the bottom left and scales towards the top right, where at some population likely exceeding a million people they are sufficiently industrially diverse that they no longer depend on crucial technology to be shipped from Earth.

Before I dig into actual numbers, I'm going to state my assumptions. For better or for worse, a lot of space-exploration themed writing, technical or otherwise, does not hew to the best possible standards for rigor. Here, I'm not going to delve into religious disputes about asteroid mining, lunar fuel stops or any other peripheral concept that's not related to the core bottlenecks.

There are two primary phases of the settlement timeline. The first, corresponding to the region of the red line below the purple cusp in the diagram above, marks the phase where scaling population within the limits of cargo shipments is a growing challenge. Loosely speaking, this challenge peaks with the successful instantiation of ore mining and refining for every industrially relevant metal and chemical - requiring interaction with the raw, unfriendly Mars environment. This phase is also the phase most directly applicable to current technology and projections.

Assuming the first phase proceeds more or less as planned and everyone doesn't die, the second phase marks the rush from the cusp to full industrial independence. By this point in the program, at least decades after initial landings, technology at every point of the exercise will have evolved to the point where predictions are difficult to make in 2017. Specifically, I expect that the forcing function of extreme Mars labor scarcity will result in drastic improvements in rockets, automation, manufacturing, and so on. It is possible, even likely, that this flowering of technology will reduce the minimum viable technology population more rapidly than ever-expanding immigration increases it.

That is, at the point of the cusp perhaps 20 years after initial landings, best estimates may still place the minimum viable population at 10 million, at least 30 years away even if the population doubles each launch window. At that cusp, net immigration could be in the tens of thousands per window but will have to increase to 100x that, something I think it rather unlikely.

Instead, rapid improvements in extraction and manufacturing technologies will reduce the minimum viable population to less than a million and perhaps less than the tens of thousands. As this trend continues, it will be possible to launch entire self-sufficient cities in one go, and perhaps a few decades later Mars will have thousands of self-sufficient towns, even though the total population may never reach the 10 million originally required.

It is important to emphasize that self-sufficiency is represented in reality as more capability than practice, since trade will always help increase overall economic efficiency.

I will sketch a picture of phase two, but first I will provide some numbers. Afterall, if the first self-sustaining settlement doesn't get built, there'll be no way for the ones that come after.

Phase One

As I explain in my book, the hard part is getting rockets from Mars to Earth, and to a lesser extent, from Earth to Mars. Here, I'll explain the constraints on total shipping capacity, then build a model that creates a plausible shipping capacity roadmap.

A spaceship has a number of important properties.

Cargo capacity to the Martian surface. Based on the IAC2016 talk and subsequent tweets, initial SpaceX Mars ships will have a cargo capacity of around 300T to the Martian surface. Second generation ships may increase this to around 1000T, but further increases are limited by a variety of physical constraints including the thinness of Mars' atmosphere.

Whether it can be reused and rate of reuse. The Mars ship is composed of a space ship, a tanker, and a booster. Initial boosters and tankers will be flown 6-30 times to refill the spaceship. The first spaceship will fly to Mars, spend nearly 2 years on the surface making propellant, then fly back to Earth. While the first few spaceships will be put near the Smithsonian, later spaceships will be able to fly to Mars every launch window after the emplacement of a fuel/ox plant and storage by the launch zone. Much later, improvements in engines could permit two flights to Mars per launch window. Over this time, the total number of Mars flights a spaceship can perform before retirement will also gradually increase.

Rate of construction. These spaceships are super complicated and difficult to make. Initial spaceships could easily take multiple years to build. Over time, the construction time will decrease and a single line can make more of them per launch window, increasing the total number of spaceships. Additional parallel lines can be built, perhaps by other space agencies using related technology, which also increases the total number of spaceships.

So how many spaceships are there per year?
To answer this question I built a Mathematica model that takes as inputs a function for the construction rate of various types, and outputs all sorts of information about total flights and total mass. This model can be downloaded from my github at https://github.com/CHandmer/mars-cargo-model. But here are the key results.

This table contains a summary of all the different types and versions of spacecraft used in the model.
This is a reconstruction of build rate (per window) from the global manifest data. We see here that as Version 1 reaches rate Version 2 is in the early production phase, on a roughly 8 year design cycle. After 2042, Version 2 production dominates investment and an additional line is added.

This graph shows how spaceship production and reuse increase the payload to Mars year over year. From 2042, Version 2 lifts the total throughput by nearly an order of magnitude.

This graph shows the cumulative cargo transported to Mars, reaching the crucial million tonne mark in about 2052. Given that mass transport begins in 2027, this process takes only 25 years to achieve.

I had a couple of surprises when seeing the results of this model.

First, total payload capacity increases very quickly. The period of time for which an initial settlement is constrained by quasi-constant cargo capacity is basically non-existent. This actually makes sense heuristically, in that it's easier to build lots of spaceships on Earth than it is to build a complete industry in space. It has a positive consequence too, which is that if the general relation between population and mass independence is maintained, the overall population can be scaled up even more quickly than before.

The second surprise was that there is genuine utility to building a Version 2 spaceship with 3x the capacity - as it compresses the timescale to reach a million tonnes of cargo by 15 years.

So how quickly does the population scale?
This is another difficult question to answer, but assuming a population-industry trajectory like the red curve given in the first graph above, the total mass each sequential settler has to bring with them can be predicted and a population-mass relation extracted.
This graph shows the total mass payload per person, assuming that the first 10 people, landing in 2027, consume the 900T of payload then available, and that the residual payload is 500kg, enough for a person and the food they have to eat on the journey.
This graph shows how the cumulative mass shipped scales with population. The population reaches a million people as the cumulative mass hits 620,000 tonnes.

This graph shows how population grows as a function of time. Here, the population exceeds a million in the 2050 launch window, 23 years after first landing.
This graph shows the window over window fractional population increase. The population grows very rapidly in the first decade to around 10,000 people. This reflects the easy gains of rapidly increasing shipping capacity and gas/water processing for plastics and propellant. 10,000 people is enough to begin mining and processing of metal ores to complete the set of available Martian feedstocks for the development of advanced industry.

Window over window gains drop below 2 from 2045 as all available space in Mars ships is consumed with passengers. If further explosive growth is needed, more ships and more flights are needed to transport people.

What does it cost?
In the previous section we eliminated mass to discover the population-time relations. Here, we reslice the data to discover the mass per passenger on a launch window basis.
This graph shows that by 2033, cargo mass per passenger has fallen to about a tonne, putting a ticket within reach of a middle class family. Someone arriving in this launch window could be the 10,000th person on Mars, and will mark the transition from program-selected specialists to self-selected professionals.

In 2035, a Version 1 spaceship can carry about 300 passengers, each with a tonne of cargo. By 2044, a Version 2 spaceship can carry about 2000 passengers, each with 500kg of cargo.

Let's adopt some ballpark numbers. A version 1.5 spaceship+tanker+booster may be constructed for a price comparable to a modern composite passenger jet, say $500m. Each refit costs $100m (of which a tiny fraction is propellant), for a total lifetime cost over 16 reuse cycles of $2b, or $125m per flight. If this is split evenly in time and between 300 passengers in 2035, the per ticket cost is around $420,000. A version 2.5 spaceship+tanker+booster will cost $500m to build, $50m to refit, and fly 30 times. Split evenly, the per-ticket cost in 2044 is $33,000, for a $65m/flight total cost.

Unfortunately it is difficult to be more precise than this, due to multiple cascading uncertainties. By the onset of "general admission" tickets in 2035, many billions will have already been spent on development and construction of spaceships which may not recover their construction costs in regular service for decades.

That said, I can attempt to estimate development and construction costs. Design rate and cost for both spaceships is $500m and 20/window, which works out to around $4.5b/year. This starts at the beginning of the program, even if the production rate doesn't reach design rate until 8 years later. Thus construction costs alone reach $4.5b/year in 2022 and $9b/year in 2032.

Reuse costs are initially low due to low numbers of reused spaceships, but eventually dominate overall program costs. By this point, however, ticket revenue will effectively offset this cost, and eventually fund the construction of new ships and entire program.

The primary financial outlay, then, occurs between 2018 and 2040, and may total $132b at an average of $6b/year.
This graph shows how the number of ships built and launched varies over time. If refit costs are 20% building costs, then building costs dominate until about 2040, by which time general admission revenue can begin to cover much of the program's operating costs.

Model Limitations
This model is generated from rocket building history alone. It doesn't take into account any other aspect of the universe, including human mortality, accident rates, or the possibility of mission failure. While guessing numbers and adding them to the model is technically easy, I judge that it would greatly increase uncertainty (fudge factor) while not adding much insight. Model complexity is only useful up to a point.

Phase Two

Earlier, I defined phase one as the era of cargo constraint, and phase two as the era of accelerating returns. As we've seen above phase two has a different kind of restraint, namely an immigration capacity restraint. By 2045, the critical path for growth is how many people can fit on a Version 2 spaceship, although under nominal predictions a million people are reached only 5 years later, by 2050.

Here, I will wrap up by listing technology concepts that could lift this constraint and permit further high rates of growth into the future.
  • Higher construction rate of Version 2. Constraints on construction and launch rate are so low that many thousands of ships could be launched every window. Construction rates could climb into the hundreds per year in a single factory. Ticket revenue could fund this, if a positive margin on launch business was maintained.
  • Faster ships that can launch multiple times in longer launch windows. This requires better engines and better mass ratios, but eventually there could be cargo and people arriving year round.
  • Entry of other companies and agencies into the bargain. Could achieve 10x, possibly 100x on rate.

On the flip side, I think it's likely that the minimum viable population requirement will shrink to the point that even small outposts will have the ability to reach full autarky.

Project Timeline

Mars 2020 - Aquifer search probes land, Version 0 ships performing atmospheric tests on Earth.

Mars 2026 - First 10 crew arrive, 3 ships on surface. They scale propellant plant, assemble a lot of base for new arrivals.

Mars 2030 - Middle of explosive growth phase, base population grows to near 1000. Pilots for all primary industries established.

Mars 2035 - First private and 10,000th settler arrives. Mars spaceport hosts dozens of Version 1 ships and the Version 2 prototype, looming over the rest.

Mars 2043 - Ticket prices fall below $100k and the population exceeds 100k. All secondary industries at least in pilot phase. "Mission accomplished"

Mars 2050 - Population on Mars exceeds a million. Dozens of outposts formed.

Mars 2060 - A web of towns and cities all over Mars, with the first base and by far the largest forming a sort of hub.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How To Fund Space Settlement - Where Does The Money Come From?

Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for the settlement of humans in space. Last year, I wrote a book (caseyhandmer.com/home/mars) about unsolved technical problems connected to Mars. Here I'm going to take a slightly different tack and talk about the financial question. In a previous post (http://caseyexaustralia.blogspot.com/2017/05/a-roadmap-to-industrially-self.html) I talked about launch cadence and shipping for industrialization of Mars on a rapid timescale. This discussion is oriented towards that problem, but I hope will be general enough to be useful for any other potential destination, including the Moon, asteroids, deep space, low Earth orbit, or beyond.

Aspects of this discussion often take on a religious tone. Here, my only goal is to explicate various options and perhaps list the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal - certainly no single approach is adequate to the task. It is clear that this is a problem that can consume extremely large sums of money!

How much exactly? It is difficult to know for sure. Using the industrialization text as a start, I propose that a population of 10,000 people can be reached on Mars in 20 years with a steadily growing launch cadence, requiring the construction of a new giant rocket every year, with re-use gradually becoming more widespread. The construction of this vehicle, plus tech for the ground, could run into the billions of dollars per year. Therefore I will baseline assumptions that a Mars settlement program will require billions, but perhaps not many tens of billions, per year for the indefinite future. This sounds like a lot of money. This isn't the place to justify expenditure of huge quantities of treasure on a project that will benefit practically no-one alive today, and maybe no-one ever. I will state merely that it is of the order of NASA's current budget, or slightly less than the cost of air conditioning in military bases in Afghanistan. It is also comparable to national expenditure on cosmetics, or a medium scale infrastructure project such as maintaining the interstate system.

In the following I have split various proposals into a few subheadings, but there is substantial crossover.


Broadly speaking, finance-backed concepts draw on the only limitless resource on Earth - human greed - and try to provide a mechanism for a big payday down the road. Generally speaking, any Mars-related investment could probably get better returns in less time on any other project on Earth. In particular, most very wealthy people don't have 50 years to wait for their money to grow! This is the primary obstacle to finance-based funding methods. Nevertheless, the quantities of money being spent, and the outrageous scarcity of certain key resources along the way, make for many business opportunities with shorter timescales for ROI. No-one doubts that settlement of space won't make a lot of people very wealthy, but the overall source of wealth is another question entirely!

- Value capture. As space transport tech improves (as it must), the value of assets in space increases disproportionately. It is possible to hedge this increase in value by, say, buying options on likely sources of key resources on Mars and holding the paper until someone needs to buy it. The primary weakness of this approach is that ownership of resources in space may be very hard to enforce, and existing legal frameworks are still very underdeveloped. Certain strategic materials or manufacturing know how on Earth has already proven to be a good bet.

- Arbitrage. Similar to value capture. Find a way of pricing some asset that has a lot of uncertainty in its future valuation, or is significantly undervalued in the market, and place a bet. Financial instruments surrounding insurance were key components of both the Dutch East India company and the 2008 financial crash. There's plenty of money available if one can figure out how to direct it.

- Triangle trade. This will be useful down the track, where Mars will be the obvious staging post for asteroid mining in the main belt, if there's ever a need for that. The Mars settlement has to get to a certain size before this is possible.

- Media rights. It may be possible to control the flow of information to and from Mars well enough that selling the media rights provides enough capital to keep the program going. This was the idea behind Mars One, and I doubt it would produce enough revenue, at least after all the middle men on Earth have taken their cut.

- Blockchain. Never say never. A Mars currency ICO? Or space-resource backed currencies more generally? I can imagine blockchain-based technologies becoming part of a collaborative design and manufacturing effort, but I doubt there are enough users and buyers of crypto currency to provide the steady stream of money needed.


There is a long history of philanthropic space exploration. Indeed, since the invention of the telescope by Galileo, nearly all major telescopes have been funded by wealthy donors of one sort or another. Why? There's an industry devoted to discovering ways to get the rich to part with their money, but many of the 19th century industrialists who funded the famous instruments of Southern California wanted to contribute a positive legacy.

- There are people who are so rich they have nothing to spend their money on but more money. Or a space program! At the most basic level, if each California billionaire bought the naming rights to one big rocket for a billion dollars, the problem would be largely solved. Who doesn't want to name a gigantic rocket in honor of Steve Jobs?

- Crowd funding. Relatively small contributions by some large number of people can raise stupendous sums of money, as the IRS has shown.

- At a more general level, space tourism could be a source of revenue, much as a handful of enthusiasts can get flown to the south pole or space station for absurd sums of money. The only other way to go is to be a professional, and that's more time consuming! I think the number of people who can afford to go to Mars and want to go will be quite small for quite a while though.

- There are companies with enormous and partially idle engineering resources. Caterpillar, AECOM, and numerous others have the technical might to solve corners of the problem without breaking a sweat. But why would they? It could help them compete for talent, provide prestige, training, brand development, or could form part of an incentives package with policy support.

Open Source/Volunteer/Collaborative Venture

This approach is very underdeveloped. Part of funding the space program is about finding ways to make it cheaper. There are tens of thousands of qualified engineers out there who could contribute their time after hours, if only there was a mechanism, platform, or more precisely, a protocol to form the method of exchange. While few in number, there are some prominent success stories borne of this approach, including the Linux kernel and open source software more generally. Applying OSS/Agile/SWE techniques to hardware engineering is an area of active experimentation. But finding a way to tie together any program that must involve more engineers than can fit in a meeting with something better than the status quo - reams of paper - is a goldmine in itself. If a hardware-oriented project management mechanism became the defacto standard, like git etc. has in software, then this provides an additional incentive for large companies to contribute resources to the problem.


Policy or law is the biggest stick with which to hit this problem by far. It's also the hardest to motivate, though perhaps a first move from a private company could see multiple governments reactively entering the space.

- Revision of the outer space treaty can enable a land grab or resource race. There are precedents for the governing body to issue resource or access licenses preferentially based on contributions to the central task. Either way, there needs to be well developed mechanisms for ownership, disposition of risk, dispute resolution, and evolution of the standards as new problems manifest.

- Jobs program. Just spend a whole lot of money in key districts and states. Not the best way to minimize costs, but probably the best way to mobilize public money.

- Social movement. Oriented towards planetary defense or fear of losing ground to a rival nation.

- Restructuring of defense budget. This is the biggest slice of the pie by far, and most of the same companies would be making the money. Would require a broad consensus, so hard to do in a proactive way.

- Bailout/rescue of failing private mission. Perhaps private space development needs additional investment to rescue the sector or safeguard strategically important technology. There is a precedent for this in the resurgence of the Russian space program in the 1990s due to strategic foreign investment.

Industrial capture

Many of the above approaches place a lot of control or uncertainty beyond the realm where it can be definitively controlled. A more direct method is to directly create wealth and then use it for whatever you want, as long as that is space settlement. At its core, all wealth is created the same way. Create demand, then control supply. The more of each, the better. Creation of whole new classes of things to own, or whole new markets, are surefire ways to create the opportunity for fabulous wealth.

- Technology. Invent a magic widget everyone wants. Or find a way of generating something (eg energy) more cheaply. Defend the IP. Bank the difference.

- Capture an industry. Is there a big industry out there with lots of revenue, lots of profit, and low competitiveness? Time to disrupt. SpaceX seems to be making a play towards satellite internet (a whole blog post in itself) and large infrastructure projects. The Boring Company seems poised to exploit a lot of latent demand for reduced travel time in congested cities.

- Space mining/resource exploitation. If it was possible to mine certain strategic resources in space and find a market for them, then an industry devoted to that could be financed or bootstrap. The main obstacle to this concept is the sheer cost of doing anything in space. It may even be cheaper to supply the moon with anything it needs from Earth, rather than to obtain it locally. Mars will need local resources, but it's hard to imagine something valuable enough to be worth shipping all the way back to Earth, except passengers and functional spaceships.

Exotic/Enabling tech

One way to reduce the required sums of money dramatically is with advanced or even exotic technology. I'll rank these roughly by level of plausibility.

- Re-usability and in situ resource utilization. This alone can reduce current costs by a factor of 100 or more.

- Space power. There is probably no way to make money selling space-based solar power to the ground, but space nuclear reactors for use on Mars or gigantic mirrors for terraforming are an interesting concept.

- In space manufacturing. One driver of space costs is launch costs. Launch a factory once and make everything in space (from asteroids, say) and that problem can go away. It's not clear to me what the critical size of this industry is, but I'd estimate somewhere north of a million tonnes produced per year before launching from Earth becomes bottlenecked somehow. Note that self-replicating robots lower costs on Earth too!

- Advanced propulsion. Anywhere from nuclear thermal rockets to warp drive. There's no reason why such concepts can't be developed in parallel with existing methods, but I don't think it's a good reason to wait.

- Life extension. Perhaps during my lifetime we'll solve aging and humans, freed from their four score and ten will think about problems on a longer time scale. I think life extension is probably key to very long space voyages, and may unlock ways to avoid possible space-related illnesses. But I'm not holding my breath.


What do you think? Which of these sources will prove to be the most enabling?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


After our wedding (blogged by C at https://medium.com/@corbett/aotearoaconf-2017-aka-christine-and-casey-got-married-d4640fdc3569), C and I went on an eclipse-themed honeymoon! 

One doesn't always get the chance to take a week of holiday, so we had grand plans. We had already driven Space Car up to the bay area, so after finishing up at the NASA Frontier Development Lab, I hit the road and got stuck in awful traffic and searing heat for nearly four hours. 

But I persisted and eventually made it to Davis, where I met C (just done with a public policy event at Sacramento) and another friend S. After a hearty dinner, we drove east, and a pigeon tried unsuccessfully to land on our car. We didn't stop, but shot up the Donner Pass and found the sketchiest hotel in all of Reno. We insisted on changing out of a room with multiple blood stains on the lamp shades (of all places!) to one with plastic bags over the smoke detectors. 

The next morning we left Reno in great haste and drove east, stopping outside Tesla's Gigafactory for breakfast. The road took us east and north past Winnemucca to, eventually, Boise. Boise has a bizarre hotel with themed suites, and we stayed in the Sleeping Beauty room. It had a castle, suit of armor, waterfall and large bathtub, and the bedroom was inside a cylindrical tower. We explored the city and had a dinner so late (8pm) that I fell asleep on the plate.
Inline image 8

The next day we drove a few more miles north west to Ontario, just over the Snake River in Oregon. We started to run into people who looked like they might be eclipse hunting, with telescopes, filters, and themed teeshirts. We did some eclipse spotting location testing, but mostly found a series of depressing towns around Weiser. Back in town we checked into a hotel, met our friend M who had flown into the airport, and eventually found a terrific Mexican restaurant behind the truck stop behind the other truck stop, where everything was cooked in lard. As it should be! 

Migrants on the Oregon Trail would travel down Snake River to Farewell Bend, the last place to die a good death before traversing hundreds of miles of deserts to the west. Today, it's a lovely state park and on this day it was full of cars and people all set to have themselves a wonderful time. 

We arrived at Farewell Bend about an hour before first contact, and the place was very busy. We parked Space Car about a mile up the road, loaded up with gear (inflatable couch, binoculars, filters, camera, camp food and cooking equipment, sunglasses, hats, water, drone) and walked in. We found a patch of lush grass between widely spaced trees (for shade) and got settled. A nearby viewer introduced himself as a 60s era Caltech alum working on cold fusion, and a few dozen yards down the hill were a bunch of amateur astronomers with all kinds of telescopes and fancy filters.

Farewell Bend is the place where people on the Oregon Trail left Snake River to cross the desert to the west, and to this day it has a great outlook over the river and some mostly barren hills opposite. The sun was high, and the sky was totally cloudless. We got our gear in order and settled in. I ran into another more recent Caltech alum by a line of suspiciously neat porta-potties. 

At every point during the event the crowds' collective murmurs kept us informed as to what was going on. Christine and I wore shirts with variations on "scientist! ask me anything" written on them, but everyone we talked to seemed to know more than we did. Later, someone said it was their 12th eclipse and not as good as the one last year!

Around 10:20am first contact occurred, when our filtered binoculars showed the edge of the moon touching the edge of the sun. The moon progressed toward the lower left, over the next 70 minutes covering more and more of the sun until, with just minutes before totality, the light got noticeably darker, the colours stood out like an overly-processed photograph, and shadows got sharper. Dappled shade behind trees was a total mess of overlapping crescents - the splotches of light in the shade of trees are, afterall, slightly defocused images of the sun.
Inline image 9

A minute before totality, the area of the sun was so reduced that ripples in the atmosphere bent the light coherently enough to get shadow bands, rushing streaks of black and white like the bottom of a pool. It was as though, in the last rapid fading of the day's light, the light itself was breaking into shards. 

The opposite sky darkened and the moon's shadow rushed towards us at the speed of the fastest military planes and, with the last diamond of the sun extinguished, the sky became totally black. Venus, Mars, and Mercury were all visible. The horizon was sunset colours in 360 degrees. The sun was now an inky black disk, like a hole in the sky, with the light coloured streaks of the solar corona shooting out from both sides, like a mustachioed devil. Through unfiltered binoculars we could see two solar prominences in vivid pinkish purple at about 2 o'clock and 5 o'clock on the face of the sun. 

Despite promises, birds didn't go nuts (though I saw this in an annular eclipse a few years back), but a few dogs and children lost their minds. 

Two minutes felt like two seconds, and the sun peeped out from the other side. The moon's shadow rushed away up the opposite hills, the sky steadily lightened, shadows returned and then began to gradually blur once more, though tree shadows looked weird for much of the next hour. By 12:44pm it was all over. We ate some lunch, crashed a toy drone 4000 times (learning!) and eventually drove out via some amazing windmills. Traffic was pretty reasonable - nothing like the horror we were yet to encounter in Yellowstone.

We returned to the crazy Boise hotel and this time stayed in the Treasure Island suite, themed as a sailing ship with a crows nest, plank, beach, and coconut palm shower. We found a local place with a secret vegan menu, did some work, and then passed out. Solar eclipses are amazing. I highly recommend them!
Inline image 1

The next day we headed further east, stopping at the incredible lava fields of Craters of the Moon National Monument (also full of people), and hiking through a huge lava tube. We had a freeze-dried risotto for lunch, then drove on to Jackson in Wyoming, which contained numerous examples of extreme mediocrity for extreme expense. But was rather pretty for all that.
Inline image 2

The next day we drove north to Yellowstone National Park, where we spent 2 hours in crawling traffic because a 3 mile section of road was reduced to one lane - but eventually made it to the geyser fields, which were pretty good. I have seen the geysers in New Zealand and Kamchatka, so I suppose the next stop is Iceland? We walked around all of them, watched Old Faithful do its thing, and eventually drove north and west out of the park, enduring only 10 more miles of stop-go traffic, and nearly running out of gas. Once back in Montana and Idaho, we stepped on the gas, getting dinner at Olive Garden (at least a pound of pasta) and staying the night in Pocatello. 
Inline image 3

The next day we drove south once more into Utah and got lunch in Salt Lake City. We listened to Book of Mormon to celebrate, then visited the library and the Grand American Hotel, which was staggeringly overdone. We had orange juice while a harp played! We left town, following wind turbines through a gap in the mountains to the east of the city and, after only the usual two or three hours at blazing speed, arrived at Canyonlands National Park in time for sunset, which was pretty fun. On the way out, we saw a fox and some deer, then spent the night at hotel in Moab. 
Inline image 4

Next morning we got underway early, visiting the busy and hot Arches National Park, which contained people, hundreds of stone arches, and balancing rocks, then cut west across rural Utah along the most mindbending Interstate (I70) I'd ever seen, eventually arriving at Bryce Canyon. C had never heard of it before so I got a picture of her face when she got to the edge of the cliff. We didn't have time to dispatch a long hike, so we headed on past Mt Carmel Junction to Zion, enjoying the tunnel and staying in the lodge, eating at the grill, and generally living the life. Once again we saw the Milky Way and some deer before bed.
Inline image 5

The next day we offset some of our enforced idleness by waking as early as 7 (!) and quickly strolling up Angel's Landing, a spectacular viewpoint looking out over the whole of Zion Canyon, accessed by a perilously narrow (4' wide) ridge with a 1000 feet drop on both sides. We followed that with a nice walk up The Narrows, took in lunch at the grill, drove back to the I15, down the Virgin River Canyon, then stopped in at Valley of Fire State Park. The Mormons also traveled through here, but I just love the red rocks, bluish plants, prehistoric carvings, animal tracks, dinosaur tracks, and weird shapes. 
Inline image 6

Heading south we also stopped at Hyperloop One's test track by Apex Parkway, where I pointed out to C what parts I'd designed. The most obvious feature is the subtle curve of the tube following the landscape, though the original design was 12x as long! Finally we got into Vegas, eventually managed to check in at the Rio (I wouldn't go back...), took in the Carnival World Buffet, the Penn and Teller magic show, then went to sleep. 
Inline image 7

The next day we flew the drone around the room, had a $50 room service breakfast (stale cornflakes), checked out, then drove back to LA via the Baker Thermometer and the Victorville Whiskey Barrel, another establishment with a secret vegan menu. The Cajon pass on the 15 down to the LA basin is one of the scariest roads I've ever driven, but soon enough we were back in LA, exhausted but happy to be home.

And that is how we conducted our #astrohoneymoon. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

St Petersburg 2017

Two weeks ago I zoomed east to St Petersburg. My parents (B and A) were going to be there for 3 days. I visited about 10 years ago and I had always wanted to show close friends or family something of the experience and discoveries I'd had there. Last year I had the pleasure of sharing Vladivostok with my sister, and now I had the opportunity to share the European part. I spent a few minutes brushing up on my shockingly terrible Russian, then stuffed my pockets with spare underwear and set out.

Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/ZvyQSg36o9UxyfPD7

After a busy weekend, I headed to LAX, went through the usual hassle, and boarded a flight to Amsterdam. On the flight I watched "Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them," which was lovely. I also watched "Inferno" which imbued me with a deep and occasionally recurring desire to live in Rome. In Schipol airport I found the lounge, snacked, then slept on the way to St Petersburg Pulkovo airport, where I set up camp to wait for B and A who were flying in a few hours later. The best place to wait was by the oversized baggage collection point, so I helped get a few children into strollers.

Eventually B and A showed up, we took a bus to the metro, then a metro (with minor ticket drama) into the city, then walked to the hotel. It's best to approach a city on its own terms. Uber is cheating! I had found an airbnb near my parents' hotel, so I settled in and started to plan the next 48 hours with extreme focus. 

That was day 0. This is day 1. I woke at 6:30am, many hours after the midsummer dawn. We walked down Nevsky Prospekt (the main street) to the monumental Kazan Cathedral, which has a huge colonnade at the front. Later that morning we met the outreach director for the Vavilov seed bank, who showed us the inner workings of this storied institution in St Petersburg. Set up in the 1920s to preserve hundreds of thousands of varieties of commercial crops, it remains active to this day. Its darkest hour was in WW2, when its curators barricaded themselves inside to protect the seeds from hungry people during the 3 year Leningrad siege, and also devious rats. Many of the workers starved rather than tuck into their huge supplies of seeds preserving natural biodiversity. The present day curator, S, also gave us a summary of Vavilov's theories about the 8 locations where all domesticated plant varieties originated. The last thing we saw was the cryogenic storage vault, which contained impressively home-made looking liquid nitrogen machines.

A quick break for lunch in a place that was way too fancy, then a tour of St Isaac's cathedral, which has a publicly accessible cupola with amazing views of the city. Sadly, we missed a hydrofoil to Petrodvorets (the summer palace) so instead walked across the river to the Peter and Paul fortress, where we took in a few museums with all kinds of cool stuff. We came back via the Church on the Spilled Blood, commemorating the location where one of the Tsars was assassinated. It survived bombing in WW2 but sadly closed minutes before we arrived. It rained intermittently throughout the day, and at about 3pm the skies opened. We ducked into a dumpling restaurant and recharged. We headed back to the hotel to relax, before going out to dinner with a couch surfer.

We took an Uber into one of St Petersburg's older districts (the sun was still up at 8pm), climbed up an atmospheric stair case, and found the home of V, a musician and frequent host of travelers in the area. V, one of his guests, and the three of us had a terrific dinner (which involved pasta) and swapped many stories of life traveling around Europe singing traditional songs for children. V trained as an engineer but took up music in the 1990s as a way to travel and see the world. Alas we could spend only a couple of hours and barely peeled back a single layer of the Russian mystery. But better than nothing.

Around midnight the sky was still light but it was time to sleep.

Day 2 we once again woke absurdly early. We walked back into the central square via my old hostel, which seems to no longer exist. We had arrived quite early, and the guide's tickets were a bit late, so we ended up spending just over an hour in our warm jackets and rain coats admiring the Baltic weather (freezing wind and rain on the summer solstice!) before finally we got into the Hermitage museum. Previously I'd had to self guide around this museum but with my parents in town I took no chances and hired a professional guide, who also gave some free insight into the Russian mentality towards certain types of tourists. I'm not sure if I enjoyed it more before, I'm certainly older and harder to impress now. Aspects of the structure and architecture stood out more now, and several new rooms had opened. It's an incredible place! I prefer the sculptures, but there's some amazing stuff in there.

We grabbed some lunch, met some Russian tourists from the Ural mountains, then I did another tour of the museum while B and A prepared a final devastating assault on both the gift shop and the efficacy of punitive economic sanctions. 

Unfortunately, the ballet and opera were, by this time, booked out, so we evolved the plan and went to the state Russian art museum. There were some incredible paintings there from Russia dating back to the beginning. Standouts included paintings of ocean scenes and of course the iconic Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. 
Image result for Ivan Aivazovsky
Shipwreck by Ivan Aivazovsky (who has the best sideburns EVER).
Cossacks of Saporog Are Drafting a Manifesto
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin. 

Once again on leaving the museum we were crushed by rain, found another dumpling restaurant (I have a sixth sense), then B and I walked to the main railway station. This is as far east as I went by train about 10 years ago, but I didn't have strong memories of it - arriving in the very early morning in winter. It turns out there isn't much there - a big concrete entrance hall, and a shop with a talkative assistant who knew quite a lot about geology. We located some more chocolate. 

Day 3, an early morning meeting with a couch surfer fell through so we headed to the airport, raided the lounge, and talked about Cuba. I politely declined too much daddy-sign-cheque, then boarded Air France flight homewards. I ordered a vegan meal (they get served about 20 minutes early, so if you're quick you can get two sets of snacks), then settled in for a series of flights and high altitude movies back to LA. 

Well I've now been to St Petersburg for a total of five days. Both times I saw much the same stuff. One day, one day I will see the other palaces, art museums, opera, ballet, boats, and connect better with a local scene. But what's the point of Russian? =P

One doesn't often get the opportunity to press rewind and revel in the mix of past and present, much less the chance to appose developmentally important aspects of your life. In this case, my parents cooked me pretty well until I was 18, at which point I took over and flame roasted the outer husk in a series of terrifying adventures. Now that process has gone, in some sense, full circle. It was quite cool to spend time in Vladivostok with my sister A last year. Now only my brother remains to adventure in Russia. The eastern BAM, Sakhalin, Taymyr, and the Kuril islands await. Consider yourself warned!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Drones and planes

The goal
Electric flight.

The challenge
Relatively low energy density in batteries, 265Wh/kg. 

The hope
Steady, though not indefinite, battery improvement, flexible configurations, mechanical simplicity, motor power density, combustion independence. 

We may be only a decade away from economically competitive subsonic or supersonic electric passenger transport. Beyond breakeven, battery improvements allow continual improvements of range within the same airframe. 

The existing situation
Numerous consumer and professional drones have been developed, adapted for racing, harassing cats, and as a video platform. Platform adaptation for policing or war shows haphazard development. Human transportation also shows development, though mostly in the "flying lawn chair" or "flying car" space, rather than as competition for the Pilatus PC-12 or Boeing 737. 

The development timeline
Human rated commercial aviation technology has a timescale of around a decade, which is similar to the battery specific energy horizon.

The catalyst
Small scale drones can demonstrate and develop engineering expertise in high speed electric flight. Small scale is less efficient, so scaling up improves range. Uses exist in rapid delivery of cameras, packages, or drone capture nets.

My plan
Develop a series of innovative tabletop scale drones which develop the metric of maximum speed. Must run on rechargeable batteries. Produce a steady stream of documentation to spread ideas. 

Current progress
I built, flew, and fatally crashed a drone based on a carbon fiber and 3D printed frame. It was based very loosely on the Stigg 195 concept (https://www.catalystmachineworks.com/products/stig-6-fpv-racing-quad) which at the time held the speed record for small electric drones, at 137mph. 

Coming soon
All new 3D printed design, 200mph speed goal. Also, crashing less =D. 

Current records
Electric plane (at least 250mph): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BC2KPsKwLpY
Glider (dynamic soaring 517mph): https://vimeo.com/213265400

If someone knows of a leaderboard with record progressions for all classes please let me know!

Stepping stones
0 - Duplicate current speed record (~200mph)
1 - Demonstrate transonic propulsion surfaces (~500mph)
2 - Demonstrate supersonic horizontal flight (>760mph for >5s)
3 - Demonstrate sustained supersonic flight (>1000mph for >60s)
4 - Suborbital flight - accelerate to 4000mph up to 100k feet - nightmare mode

Can you help me? Get in touch!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Cuba 2017

It was my recent pleasure to travel to Cuba with my fiance, C. We spent eight days on the ground and it was intense. My primary interest, besides long standing curiosity, was to see how an isolated (geographically and politically) island economy functions. This was to help me examine some of the assumptions that I fed into my recent and ongoing work on small-scale industrial bootstrapping and Mars settlement!

C and I had wanted to travel together at some point this year, and we found a free week in common. Plans were made, and at 6am Saturday morning, we set off for the airport. Alaska runs a direct flight to Havana for cheap, so by mid afternoon we had landed with a bump, taxied past some ancient Russian Cubana planes being eaten by moss (their current fleet is more modern!), got through immigration and found ourselves in the humid heat, surrounded by amazing American cars from the 1950s. We realized later that Alaska flies to the old terminal, which is considerably more atmospheric.

Havana has more than a million people but the old town is compact (with buildings dating back to the 1500s) and the traffic is sensible, due to a shortage of vehicles and fuel. We set out on foot, walking along the Malecon, a seaside corniche that runs along the northern shore of the city toward the harbour entrance and old fort. The harbour had quite a number of tiny fishing boats, but I suspect the larger vessels evaporated some time ago. The Malecon fed us into the old center, where we walked a space filling curve between Hemingway's (mostly unchanged) old haunts, eventually finding an old bishop's palace to eat dinner. Later that evening we strolled back to our airbnb and decompressed. 

Internet in Cuba is non-standard. Typically there is one or two parks in a city with a public wifi router. One looks for the sketchiest person in the park, who is selling internet tickets for a small fee. There is a considerable industry in resaling these tickets, which contain a username and password that's good for an hour or so, or less, depending on how congested the network ends up being.

The next morning, I felt surprisingly reticent about going outside, ever again, but eventually hunger drove us forth once more into the teeming maelstrom. I have always found the first few days of any adventure to require a lot of readjustment and some gritting of teeth - and likewise at the end of a trip, a day or two back in familiar surrounds to re acclimate. We ventured forth to a nearby hotel, seeking money exchange. The foyer of this hotel had several bellboys, an entrance to an empty restaurant, a bar/seating area full of smoke, a reception desk, a retrofitted elevator, a small fountain, and as we waited to talk to someone, part of the bar's plaster ceiling detached and sailed gracefully down onto the bar right in front of someone nursing one of the 400 different kinds of excellent Cuban rum that can be had here. The bar keep shrugged, wiped the mess onto the floor, and then topped up everyone's drink. 

We spent most of the Sunday walking around the city, venturing as far as the train station (under restoration) and the Capitolio (same). Just north of the station is an old dockyards which is now a market, in which we got some pina coladas and admired the amazing paintings everywhere. Our luggage was too minimal for souvenirs, so if you ever go to Cuba, buy us a painting! 

I was initially surprised, given Obama's recent visit, that many of the old building facades were still in dire need of repair. In contrast, my experiences in the Beijing Hutong before and after the 2008 Olympic games showed that the most popular thoroughfares were thoroughly facelifted. Later I realised that actually many buildings have partially collapsed behind the facades, and the people living there do what they can with the materials they have to keep out the rain etc etc. Most buildings have at least partially rebuilt or retrofitted subdivisions, stairways, concrete floors, plumbing, electricity. I had no idea of the history at all, and no easy way to find out (no internet or Spanish skills to speak of) though later we found out that Cuba's economy was in dire straights through the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That afternoon with clouds brewing we took a pedal taxi (made of MIG-welded rebar) to the Museum of the Revolution, located in the early 20th century capital building, full of history of the early revolution and subsequent struggles against (mostly not imagined) CIA interference in the period thereafter. Parts of the building still had bullet holes in the walls, and out the back were a few planes and the motor yacht (Granma) on which the revolutionaries traveled to Cuba in the 1950s to start the revolution. It is uncertain exactly how many people were on the boat (designed to sleep 12). Some sources say 62, others say around 80. It's possible that a few people became honorary passengers post-facto, I suppose. That evening we'd heard of a great restaurant in Vedado called Decameron, so being not even half-tired, we set out to walk there (it was good) and back, which only took 3 hours. We could have taken a taxi but it was super interesting just walking and looking. My phone contains a fitness tracker and we later discovered we had averaged more than 4 hours walking a day.

Well if that sounds exhausting, strap in, we were only just getting started. The next morning we packed up and went to a cafe we'd heard about. We turned left at a three legged dog, right at the toothless man, and behind the burned out car found the place. The breakfast was good but overall it was much too clean. We eschewed the line of coco taxis and walked to the ferry terminal. They checked our bag for weapons (one was hijacked in 2003 to go to Miami!) and we motored across the harbour to Casablanca, the much quieter northern shore of the old city. There we attempted to buy train tickets on the >100 year old Hershey electric train, walked around a bit, and clambered all over an obviously disused train carriage, a rusting hulk tucked at the end of the line. After an hour, a brave man disconnected two fat copper wires twisted around bolts emerging from the carriage's side, it thumped to life, and we all clambered on - mostly locals (for whom it acts as a bus, stopping and starting anywhere along its 90km length) and one other set of backpackers, from Lithuania. 

The train was slow (outrun by birds) and rather bumpy, but it had good ventilation (the doors stayed open sometimes) and it was faster than walking. After 2 hours or so we got to the town of Hershey, half way, and briefly surveyed the rusting ruins of the old sugar and chocolate factories, nationalized after the revolution and now mostly defunct. Not long after the train broke down. A few people including me jumped out to have a look around. Behind the train were several ominous looking pools of black sludge - did we have a coolant leak? It turned out to be caramel that had leaked from another train! Ours had broken an air line and our engineer was unable to effect a repair. An hour later another train came and pushed us to a siding, then proceeded down the track for another hour or so, until we got to San Antonio. Currently the train terminates here, 14km short of our destination: Matanzas. The 10 remaining passengers set off on foot, and after an hour we reached the first town, a small hamlet with a rusting bridge, a food distributory, no facilities for foreigners (who are legally compelled to use a separate currency at special shops etc), and mostly uniform looking concrete houses all closely spaced. It was the smallest town we saw on the trip and it was interesting to get a view into how the Cuban experiment functions on such a small scale.

We carpooled with the Lithuanians in an old American car the last 10km into town. The town, Matanzas, began abruptly - no more than 10 feet separated open fields (one valley) from high density concrete houses (the next valley), with narrow sidewalks and many busy one way streets. Matanzas dates to the 1690s, and much of it in the original buildings. We found our airbnb (again, special accommodation only for tourists), a large rental house with copious fish tanks and terrariums, then walked into town to find internet, dinner, and spectacular clouds at sunset. The house had an electric hot water system that runs an element right over the showerhead. I've heard them referred to as Brazilian showerheads and although I'm sure they have good QC and big fuses, I've always preferred to have a cold shower - which after a day like ours was no imposition at all. 

Day 3 (indexing from 0) and we got up early. Our airbnb hosts provided breakfast for an extra $5, consisting of pawpaw, mango, pineapple, eggs, bread, and juice. We were picked up by two guys who drove us 20 minutes north west, over a huge canyon, and down through a *very* faded seaside resort, complete with cabanas, oil derricks, and an empty seaside pool containing chunks of concrete. Down on the beach we geared up and went on two dives - both C and I are certified SCUBA divers. I hadn't dived in the Atlantic before and the coral really stood out. We saw lots of fish, two kinds of lobster, a puffer fish, trumpet fish, a lion fish, a cone shell, and all kinds of other stuff. Resurfacing was a shock after nearly two hours of neutral buoyancy, especially with all the tanks and stuff. By the time we got back to the city, it was lunch time, which we enjoyed in the atmospheric foyer of an old hotel facing the central square. I ordered a Cuban soft drink, which uses EDTA as a sweetener! Next door, a staggeringly good choir practiced what might have been Vierne. 

Thus refreshed, we set out toward the eastern end of the town, looking for the train station, which was mislabeled on the only map we had. After a couple of hours of semi-random walking and strange directions, we found the elevated concrete hall, deciphered the timetable (highly aspirational) and then walked back to town for dinner. We had some difficulty booking further accommodation, as https payment portals on the usual apps didn't seem to function on the CubaNet. Fortunately we were able to arrange the details via text message with a buddy in the states. That evening we discovered that ants had set up shop under my pillow, so we transitioned to a different bedroom!

Day 4 we had to relax and revive before the evening's train trip. For some reason most trains in Cuba run overnight - possibly the rails are better behaved when they are cool. We took a trip up the hill to the caves of Bellamar, the oldest tourist attraction in Cuba. Discovered by chance in the 19th century, the network stretches for 27km. The entrance drops down into a BIG cavern, around 100 steps or so, then a series of narrower passages stretch away. The cave guide had a good sense of humor. At one point there was a fountain of love (for the young people) and a fountain of youth (for the old people, but it was nearly empty because a lot of old people came the previous day). Further down was the fountain of the Americas, through which further passages could be accessed, but not on the public trail. At some point the lights went out for a second and it was super dark. On the way back up, the guide said "there's 139 stairs to get to the top. If you feel your heart beating faster don't worry - it's working!" 

Back on the surface we enjoyed a very cheap lunch (Bellamar caters mostly to locals), walked down the road a bit, found the cave's air vent and some lonely looking chickens, then eventually got on the bus back to town. Just as we got on it poured with rain, but surprisingly little came in the windows. Back in town we walked around a little, found some interesting art studios, packed, then took a taxi to the train station. We were in plenty of time, but not to worry, the train was running 2 hours late. The waiting hall was painted in faded yellow, illuminated by three flickering bulbs and featured surprisingly fast ants. A small TV played a movie, and after it ended, about half the room stood up and left! Around 30 people remained in several rows of plastic chairs. 

At length everyone suddenly went bezerk. The ticket office opened just long enough to sell one ticket (about 15 people including us were in line), so we walked down to the platform with everyone. Foreigners *never* take the train so they were a bit confused what to do with us. Around 11:15pm the train arrived, a huge clanking diesel engine, followed by a carriage full of prisoners (with several fresh ones on the platform to join them), then first class, a baggage car, then second class. We climbed on and found seats, settled in, and C went to sleep while I flicked the odd bug off her. The train rattled along, much more smoothly than the Hershey train, with the odd big bang and shake (possibly suspension bottoming out), and my GPS said we peaked at about 80km/h, with stations every 50-100km. 

After a while some passengers across the aisle decided it would be fun to try to convince me that the fare was $5 and I had to pay them. A nearby off-duty conductor kind of shrugged and I played dumb. The true fare is about 8c. Messing with foreigners is extremely unusual/illegal (vis. the prisoner car at the front of the train) and I interpreted it in a joking light. Later, the flow of bugs intensified and after a stop we found our seats sold to someone else, so moved further down the train. For a while we rode in the vestibule with a gigantic drum of water sloshing around, then found another seat. As we approached our destination (the small town of Colon) the train slowed to a crawl for about 30 minutes, we got up, and waited near the door. Just as we arrived the train lights went out for a few minutes and it was really dark! But nothing unusual happened. By the time we got out it was after 1am, so we hightailed it through town to our booked place (foreigners must stay in casas particulares, marked with a special sign), checked in, dispatched a couple of friendly roaches (a baby two inch one ended up under my shoe), and enjoyed the hot shower. Then sleep! 

Day 5 we slept in a bit, then took the day to enjoy the scenery, starting with the hotel room which was adorned with some unusually erotic art. The town is about 20 blocks on a side, not really set up for tourism, and bustling! Several markets sold all sorts of unusual things, including plumbing parts, blender parts, arts and crafts, car parts, and so on. Several 1920s style buildings on the main street, and a typically abrupt transition from dense single or two story dwellings to farm land. Many people got around by horse drawn cart so we took one! I couldn't understand how much the ride was so held out a fistful of (tourist) coins, which could easily have been a week's salary for a Cuban. But the driver took the right amount and we proceeded on our way. I swung back via the station to gather timetable information and admired its reinforced concrete architecture - very clever ways to get the wind in while keeping the water out. But very quiet. The Cuban trains and rails are some of the oldest in the world and the system is just barely limping along. Trains the world over have fallen victim to reliable cars and trucks and excellent roads, and I would be surprised if Cuba's apparent move to liberalize and open trade doesn't deal the trains the death blow. When I was in my teens, it was possible to take trains from Singapore to China via Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. That route is now very (and probably permanently) broken. 

C and I jumped in a car and were driven to Santa Clara, a town in the center of Cuba, thus continuing our mission to use every mode of transport possible. Along the way we saw a number of giant storms roll through, mostly defunct factories, and the usual rolling hills of the Cuban countryside. The car was initially full of mosquitoes, so that kept us amused. In Santa Clara we found our accommodation, relaxed for two, maybe three milliseconds, then set off into town to find an excellent dinner. To my pleasant surprise, a lot of the info on Cuba is 5-10 years out of date. We had feared eating nothing but rice, beans, and plantain, but we found numerous restaurants with all kinds of stuff on the menu. Service wasn't the same level you get in the USA, where wait staff need tips to not starve, but we found a few smiles went a long way, especially once we got off the beaten track. Matanzas felt a bit strange, possibly because most tourists in the area are going to the foreigner-only resort area of Varadero, and possibly fail to comport themselves in a manner best representing the pride of their home nation.

After dinner we walked to the central square, where an orchestra played some Cuban music on the bandstand. But alas shortly after we arrived it began to pour with rain, the orchestra packed up, and we began to explore the loggias around the central square. Santa Clara's square is home to one of the eight famous pre-revolutionary theatres in Cuba, through which many of the opera stars of turn of the 20th century performed! Unfortunately this one is no longer structurally sound and must be appreciated from the outside. The rain cleared up and we walked back to our place. Along the way I noticed a TV show about Pavarotti through someone's open window. I would have liked to stay and watch, but C thought that was weird so we walked home. There are only 5 channels in Cuba (same as Australia) so we actually heard Pavarotti singing the whole way. But when we arrived we channel surfed for a bit and couldn't find him! Just before bed I walked to the Santa Clara railway station, got a lot of strange looks, checked out the timetable, and then retired for the evening. 

Day 6. The $5 breakfast in Santa Clara was enormous! It covered the entire table. I took only one of each thing and I nearly exploded. Given the uniformity of breakfasts in these places I wonder how expectations are being transmitted! We decided to spend the day exploring Santa Clara, while dodging very enthusiastic taxi drivers. We checked out the Che Guevara monument and museum, which contained many of his guns, writings, and even his 6th grade report card! We sussed out the bus station, which required yet more avoiding taxi drivers, literally dozens of them screaming "taxi my friend habanabadadedomatanzasinfugo", which made me wonder about the incentive structure. Have they ever gotten a fare by screaming louder than the guy next to them? It was pretty clear the whole trip that there were way more people wanting to work in tourism than tourists, but that the underlying infrastructure to support the tourists was pretty much at capacity. 

That afternoon we checked out the cigar factory, which was amazing. About 40 people each working at a specialized desk with various presses and containers for different kinds of leaves. It takes them 9 months to learn to make a cigar, and each person makes the entire cigar, between 70-150 a day, from start to finish. There is no production line! The QA procedure included measuring the back pressure of the rolled leaves to ensure that they weren't too tight or too loose. 

Later on, we met up with some couchsurfers who I had found the previous day. Our surfer, M, studies banana genetics and CRISPR (!) at the university, and showed as a cool hill from which there was a good view. We ended up talking for nearly 4 hours, met M's husband (who is obsessed with rockets!), the dog, the family, and had a great time. They explained why Cuba is so proud of political autonomy, and wary of foreign investment. It is a compelling argument but it does illustrate the industrial precariousness of wanting to be un-aligned within the western hemisphere. We also took in a monument to the battle Che led in Santa Clara, which was the turning point of the revolution. They managed to interdict a train filled with weapons for the opposition, and then achieved a convincing victory despite a terrible numerical disadvantage. That evening we found a good pizza place, packed up, and slept. 

Day 7 we got up before 7am, confronted a total and ongoing failure to connect to the internet, then walked back to the bus station. Dodged the taxi drivers, chilled in the waiting room, killed mozzies, then eventually boarded the bus. It was overcrowded (they pick up hitchhikers along the way) and had window shades that made looking out impossible. I was reading a good book, and I'm glad we eventually used the system that foreigners are recommended to take, but the three hour trip along an almost empty three lane highway was nowhere near as exciting as a midnight train to an uncertain destination! We determined that the bus station was a lot further from the city center than the point of closest approach, so jumped off in a great hurry as the bus turned away from downtown Havana. We walked into town, arriving at our place just as two other tourists we had met on the bus also arrived, having gotten off at the terminal and taken a taxi. Ha! Saved $5! We found a place to stay, did a lap of the old city, then went on an art gallery crawl finishing with the national gallery, which was pretty good. Unfortunately our plan to go salsaing on our last night failed when every salsa club we tried was closed! We'd heard a lot earlier in the week but missed our chance! We headed off to dinner on the fifth floor of some 19th century palazzo, where we encountered a father/son pair who had sailed to Cuba to support a Hobie Cat race from Florida. Dinner was pretty tasty, after which we walked back along the Malecon, took an electric shower, and abruptly passed out from exhaustion.

Day 8, Sunday, the last day. We packed our bags, checked wifi, then took a Coco Taxi from out the front of the old hotels through the town towards the University of Havana. It turned out to be closed on Sundays, and the physics department was derelict. We walked further into the distant reaches of the town, seeing the hospital, Jose Marti Plaza (my sandal broke at this point), and the Colon Cemetery (applied duct tape to sandal). This cemetery had nearly a million interees, hundreds of varied mausoleums, and distinct areas separated by class and profession. Apparently its architect died before completion and was the first occupant! These days it is overfull so remains are removed after a few years and warehoused. 

From there, we walked to the John Lennon park, and eventually stopped at a fancy hotel overlooking the ocean, where we sipped drinks in the bar, which probably made us ill. We watched the fancy yank tanks with their incredibly shiny and probably structural paint glide by, and relaxed before our mad rush to the airport.

We scoped out a fancy bright red 1959 Impala with wings and white seats, and took it to the airport. Along the way, we got rather hot under the sun, and I admired the workmanship that had gone into making this ancient vehicle look and run okay. Almost everything except the chassis was non-original, including the suspension! The silver trim seemed to have been made from some shiny metal stock by hand, the windshield was plexiglass, and so on. Incredible! He dropped us at the fancy terminal so we spent our last $5 taking another, slightly less shiny ancient car to the old terminal, where we got through to the departure lounge with no hassles at all. Unfortunately we had no money so we couldn't buy any food, but an engineer from Virgin Galactic recognized C's astronaut and south pole patches and we had a good chat. He had spent a week with Cuba's national television and animation studio, which apparently has a large focus on education. 

Walking out along the tarmac to the waiting 737-900 was an odd feeling. Passenger jets are miraculous enough at the best of times, but shimmering in the heat, every rivet precisely flush with its compoundly curved double winglet, it looked like a spaceship. A spaceship that would zip us up into the stratosphere to hurtle homeward at a solid fraction of the speed of sound. 

Cuba. Wow. What a place!